After a few days juggling two blogs, I’ve decided to move my reviews and other Canlit posts to my other blog. I hope you’ll visit me at A Novelist’s Mind!
In a sense writing a novel is a sort of discovery . You know more or less where you’re headed but everything could change in the doing of it. And, you know, you can be very surprised. (- Margaret Laurence)
This video interview dates from 1966 when Margaret Laurence was 40 years old and on the verge of fame. The conversation ranges from the culture of independent, repressed Presbyterians to issues of Colonialism and African independence. She’s smoking, which would later kill her, but I loved seeing her at this stage of her life and relating to what she says about writing.
Personal reflections on Margaret Laurence here.
The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon is terrific. I’ll start with that and recommend that you get it for yourself and read it.
This is a novel about Aristotle before he became Aristotle. He isn’t a young man when the book begins. He is 37 years old and is inspecting his wife’s vulva and vagina out of intellectual curiosity. His curiosity is great and he covets knowledge of all things.
The story follows his experiences for the next 7 years or so, while he is the tutor of Alexander the Great before he became the Great, still just the kid of King Philip of Macedon. The capital city, Pella, is a rough and tumble backwater. Aristotle longs for Athens, where he will, beginning in middle-age, found an academy and write the works that will influence science and thought for the next 1500 years or more.
The story is told in the first person and it’s very much an interior journey. There is no overarching narrative, no through line of plot, but it held my interest throughout because it’s so very well done. The voice of Aristotle, his thoughts, his feelings, his perspective and reminiscences are compelling. I know that this is one of the buzz words of blurbs (along with tour de force), but in this case the word is the right one. The historical period is brought vividly to life, not in external details, but through this perspective.
Aristotle is a nerd in a world of jocks, an intellectual among uncultured warriors whose king wants to put some shine on his court. Aristotle is both respected and mocked, seen as effeminate, and yet oddly valued. A king’s friend, he is aware of his precarious position. He is a man of great mental powers and at the same time, a man of his period, shocked when his wife experiences sexual pleasure, not especially kind to women or slaves, but more considerate than some.
Of necessity, since ancient Greece restricted women’s movements, especially upper class women, the story is mostly about men, but Lyon conveys the poignancy of this restriction effectively. One moment stands out for me especially, when Alexander’s mother comes to visit him at school, and pays dearly for it because she is not supposed to leave her quarters. I also enjoyed the character and voice of the slave/midwife Athea.
(As an aside, I liked her so much I was thinking that if I was writing the book she would be my main character and then laughed at myself, because of course I did that in The River Midnight, albeit set in a later historical period.)
This must have been a hard book to bring to a conclusion because there isn’t a narrative arc. There is no resolution, just another stage in the journey. I say this because my only quibble with this book, and it’s a small one, is at the end. The last few pages are, like the rest, terrific. But just before that there is a conversation between Aristotle and Alexander that sums up their relationship, and I just couldn’t picture it as real. But then it’s over, the author returns to Aristotle’s voice, which has been so–yes I’ll say it again–compelling throughout. Aristotle leaves for Athens. He is about to become Aristotle.
Interior, first person stories are not my favourite form. It has to be excellently executed to hold my interest, to impress and stay with me. The Golden Mean did.
Emphasizing accessibility and innovation over past literary laurels, the jury for this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize has put the spotlight on a mostly younger generation of authors who aren’t quite household names – at least not yet.
Taking It In
by Rhea Tregebov
I call to ask you about property taxes
and you tell me about the light.
Every time I call, my prudent
father, you tell me about the light,
the way it comes in through the window
and moves over the floor, over
the kitchen table, how it lays hands
on everything. And I listen, and see
you at the kitchen table in Winnipeg,
the crisp blue sky a rectangle
in the window. Oh love.
That gives me a window
like this, a father, light.
I think you are going
like oak, like brandy, like
dark wine. The good stuff
you’re made of taking the light in.
For more about Rhea click here.
Every once in a while, I read a book that I want to tell everyone to read. The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly is one of those novels. These are the reasons why:
- It’s beautifully written.
- It’s about an important subject.
- It’s stayed with me.
- It’s made me more aware of all I can be grateful for.
- It makes me proud to be a fellow writer.
How can a novel accomplish all this? I suppose I should start with what The Lizard Cage is about. The novel takes place in Burma (Myanmar) and is about a young political prisoner, Teza the singer, who inspires and infuriates the people around him with his songs and his spirituality. He is a hero, but a believably human one, who struggles with longings, pain, loneliness, hope and love. The other inmates and the warders are alike trapped in the prison, some relying on brutality, others loyalty to survive it. The only one capable of leaving, if he chooses, is an orphaned boy. Brought up in the prison, he feels contained there, the only world he knows, and is suspicious and fearful of the outside. But he longs to read even more than he hungers to eat–and that is his key, if he’ll use it.
Karen Connelly faced a challenge that I also faced with Web of Angels: how to turn non-fiction into literature, moving from knowledge and passion about a subject to a narrative that equally serves both the subject and story-making. She succeeds brilliantly. She does so with exquisite craft. She never shies away from the reality of tyranny, of deprivation or torture, but I didn’t feel depressed reading this novel. The beauty of her writing and the compassionate rendering of every character made space for this reality while containing more than it.
Teza’s faith, his Buddhist practice, enables him to come to peace in the most brutal of environments, threading his way through rage and pain to find the love beyond it. The Lizard Cage is also an embodiment of this practice.
While I was reading it, I took notice of my blessings: abundant food, well regulated intestines, a bathtub full of water, books at my fingertips, and most of all the freedom to write.
In a totalitarian regime, literature is dangerous and literature is precious. The prisoners prize reading and writing materials and the warders fear them above all else. A simple retractable stick pen is the instrument of terror, retribution, and salvation.
I am reminded of a recent conversation I had with my friend, R, who is a recent immigrant from Iran. She told me that in Iran, the government has been closing down humanities’ departments because they make people think and change their minds, which is dangerous. Here, too, humanities’ departments have been shrunk, albeit for a different reason (or is it?): because they don’t make money.
I’m glad I live in a country so much at peace that literature is neither feared nor revered. That is the price of our peace–a certain complacency. At the same time, The Lizard Cage has reminded me of what is really important: love, freedom, creativity–and to practice a lightness of spirit for all the rest. Maybe for that, too.
The Lizard Cage is a novel about Burma, it’s a novel about human rights, and it’s a novel about the human capacity for dignity and indignity. Most of all, it’s about the power of the voice. Here’s a small taste of Connelly’s writing, picked out at random:
The air smells of warming earth and green stuff and flowers. Two old generators, gutted of all usable bits, sit at odd angles against the first brick wall, sunk in several inches of water; they are surrounded by a few desicated car batteries and some discarded latrine pails. Morning glories have taken over one generator, and vines grow through the rust holes in the pails. The boy steps close to the burgeoning purple flowers and carefully gathers a collection. The wilt almost immediately, but that doesn’t matter. Flowers in one hand, new stone in the other, he turns and scans the back of the kitchen and the hospital. (p. 213)