A campus novel or “a collection of sketches”: the “dzeefeecooltsee” in classifying Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin

March 6, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

Pnin_NabokovWhat to make of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin? First published in book form in 1957, it is sandwiched between the author’s two most famous works – Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962). Perhaps this helps account for its somewhat less-heralded status. Add to that its dominant tone, which is comic, and its relative brevity (the Vintage paperback edition runs just under 200 pages).

Then there is the vexing question of the book’s genre: is it a novel, or a collection of linked stories? Segments of the book were serialized in The New Yorker, in part, as David Lodge points out, as “insurance” against the criticism and lack of sales the author felt sure would accrue to Lolita from a reading public scandalized by the book’s salacious subject matter. When Pnin first appeared, some critics suggested that it consists of a series of sketches about a fanciful character who teaches Russian at a minor American college; this prompted the famously tetchy author to sniff in a letter, “it certainly is not a collection of sketches.”

Nabokov had the ability to elevate indignation into an art, but he had a point: notwithstanding the self-contained nature of certain chapters in Pnin, there is an overarching structure to the work, made clear in the final section, which serves as a kind of recapitulation of all that has gone before. Explanations and elaborations are withheld until the closing chapter, which makes explicit the carefully constructed nature of the book. The second chapter, for example, makes glancing reference to “a tremendous love letter” Pnin wrote to his ex-wife, Liza; the letter itself appears in the second part of chapter seven. (The novel has seven chapters, the last of which is broken down into seven sections: it’s hard to get more programmatic than that.)

And then there is the novel’s style. Free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness that recalls Proust, a writer Nabokov admired, but also, as Lodge asserts, shares in common aspects of the 19th-century Russian realists, in particular Tolstoy, of whom the eponymous central character is enamoured. One early joke has the hapless professor appear for a lecture before a women’s group, where he is mistakenly introduced as the son of Dostoyevsky’s doctor. (Back in Russia, Pnin’s father, “an eye specialist of considerable repute,” had treated Tolstoy for conjunctivitis.)

The writing itself is florid and rococo, which will not appeal to a 21st-century readership in thrall to sound bites and instantaneous comprehension (Nabokov is not a writer whose work can be read quickly or cursorily). Pnin was only the fourth novel Nabokov wrote in his adopted language of English; like Conrad before him, the author seemed to feel a need to display mastery over a language he came to only as an adult. Here, for example, is an early description of Liza:

There are some beloved women whose eyes, by a chance blend of brilliancy and shape, affect us not directly, not at the moment of shy perception, but in a delayed and cumulative burst of light when the heartless person is absent, and the magic agony abides, and its lenses and lamps are installed in the dark. Whatever eyes Liza Pnin, now Wind, had, they seemed to reveal their essence, their precious-stone water, only when you evoked them in thought, and then a blank, blind, moist aquamarine blaze shivered and stared as if a splatter of sun and sea had got between your own eyelids. Actually her eyes were of a light transparent blue with contrasting black lashes and bright pink canthus, and they slightly stretched up templeward, where a set of feline little lines fanned out from each. She had a sweep of dark brown hair above a lustrous forehead, and a snow-and-rose complexion, and she used a very light red lipstick, and save for a certain thickness of ankle and wrist, there was hardly a flaw to her full-blown, animated, elemental, not particularly well groomed beauty.

The long sentences, with their cascading series of subordinate clauses, may sound odd or difficult to readers more comfortable with a declarative, journalistic style of presentation, and Nabokov’s delight in insouciant alliteration (“shivered and stared as if a splatter of sun and sea”) and other wordplay seems almost designed to throw casual readers off. A staggering number of proper names proliferate throughout the novel, many of them also characterized by playfulness and allusive meaning. Liza’s new husband, for instance, is called Eric Wind. His graduate student, “a plump maternal girl of some twenty-nine summers” and “a soft thorn in Pnin’s aging flesh” is Betty Bliss. And Liza’s therapist, “one of the most destructive psychiatrists of the day,” is Dr. Rosetta Stone.

Pnin shares with his creator a detestation of therapy and therapists, and a love of the Russian masters – Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev. But Nabokov frequently renders his protagonist as a figure of ridicule, a bumbling oaf prone to falling down staircases backward and speaking in a kind of broken English dubbed “Pninian English” by those around him. “If his Russian was music,” Nabokov writes, “his English was murder. He had enormous difficulty (‘dzeefeecooltsee’ in Pninian English) with depalatization, never managing to remove the extra Russian moisture from t‘s and d‘s before the vowels he so quaintly softened.”

This may provide another impediment for modern readers who demand a sympathetic protagonist, since Nabokov’s preferred tone is one of haughty sarcasm, even in a novel that is notably less cold and unsparing than the scabrous Lolita. The choice of narration helps in this regard: Pnin’s story is filtered through the sensibility of a first-person narrator, allowing readers to distance themselves from the professor and ascribe the crueler elements of the characterization to the anonymous figure relating the story.

And it is not as though Pnin is presented entirely without empathy. The description of his youthful affection for Mira, a Jewish woman killed in a Nazi death camp during the Second World War, is enormously affecting, as is the very real sadness that befalls Pnin upon learning, near the end of the book, that not only is he being denied tenure, but he is being forced out of his job by petty and antagonistic members of the college faculty. The scene following this revelation finds Pnin alone in his rented home – the first in a series of residences he seems to find truly liveable – cleaning up after hosting a party for his colleagues. Here Nabokov dispenses with his rhetorical flourishes and opts instead for an unadorned presentation, which is heartbreaking in its directness and candour:

He rinsed the amber goblets and the silverware under the tap, and submerged them in the same foam. Then he fished out the knives, forks, and spoons, rinsed them, and began to wipe them. He worked very slowly, with a certain vagueness of manner that might have been taken for a mist of abstraction in a less methodical man. He gathered the wiped spoons into a posy, placed them in a pitcher which he had washed but not dried, and then took them out one by one and wiped them all over again. He groped under the bubbles, around the goblets, and under the melodious bowl, for any piece of forgotten silver – and retrieved a nutcracker. Fastidious Pnin rinsed it, and was wiping it, when the leggy thing somehow slipped out of the towel and fell like a man from a roof. He almost caught it – his fingertips actually came into contact with it in mid-air, but this only helped propel it into the treasure-concealing foam of the sink, where an excruciating crack of broken glass followed upon the plunge.

The loneliness and frustration in this scene is palpable, and gives the lie to anyone wanting to accuse Nabokov of being a heartless writer.

Lodge characterizes Pnin as an early example of the subgenre that has come to be known as the “campus novel,” despite the fact that Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise predates it by some thirty-seven years. But there is no doubt that Nabokov takes the opportunity to skewer some of the more galling and pretentious aspects of the academy – what is surprising is how recognizable his portrait remains.

The new fall term sees “in the margins of library books earnest freshmen [inscribe] such helpful glosses as ‘Description of nature,’ or ‘Irony’; and in a pretty edition of Mallarmé’s poems an especially able scholiast [has] already underlined in violet ink the difficult word oiseaux and scrawled above it ‘birds.'” The college’s earnest attachment to outmoded ideas is savagely ridiculed: “Hard-working graduates, with pregnant wives, still wrote dissertations on Dostoevski and Simone de Beauvoir. Literary departments still labored under the impression that Stendhal, Galsworthy, Dreiser, and Mann were great writers. Words like ‘conflict’ and ‘pattern’ were still in vogue.” And granting bodies give money to vapid projects, such at the one run by Dr. Rudolph Aura (those names again), a “renowned Waindell psychiatrist” who has come up with the Fingerbowl Test, “in which the child is asked to dip his index in cups of colored fluids whereupon the proportion between length of digit and wetted part is measured and plotted in all kinds of fascinating graphs.”

However one wants to position it – campus novel, collection of linked stories, comedy of manners, immigrant character study – Pnin offers plentiful literary interest densely packed into a very brief volume. That it resists attempts at classification is likely part of its author’s design for the novel, but may also account for its relative lack of recognition as compared to the other volumes in the writer’s oeuvre. In any case, the novel remains an object of abiding interest, and more than a mere curiosity by a writer forever associated with his better-known, iconic text.

Spin control: Mark Bourrie’s new book on muzzling scientists, manipulating media, and stamping out dissent in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa

March 4, 2015 by · 3 Comments 

Kill_the_Messengers_Mark_BourrieFor anyone interested in the federal Conservatives’ preferred method of getting unpopular legislation through the court of public opinion, Bill C-13 is instructive. The Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act received Royal Assent on December 9, 2014, though its passage was not without hiccups. Sparked by uproar over the heinous cyberbullying that led to the deaths of teenagers Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, the bill sought to stiffen penalties for crimes such as non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit images, child pornography, and so-called revenge porn.

Fair enough.

But, bundled in with those laudable goals were a whole raft of other changes to the Criminal Code that will, in aggregate, have the effect of eroding citizens’ privacy by, in part, allowing police to request that internet service providers voluntarily hand over user information without having to secure a warrant or any kind of judicial approval.

Some of the opposition to the bill was predictable. University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist appeared before the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs last November; Geist pointed out that the Supreme Court’s Spencer decision had likely already rendered parts of Bill C-13 unconstitutional even before it had become law. Secondly, Geist suggested that the provision for voluntary disclosure of user data has dangerous implications for privacy and the expansion of state surveillance powers: “The provision unquestionably increases the likelihood of voluntary disclosures at the very time that Canadians and the courts are increasingly concerned with such activity. Moreover, it does so with no reporting requirements, oversight, or transparency.”

Resistance, however, also came from less obvious sources. Sheldon Clare, president of the National Firearms Association – a group that could reasonably be counted among the Conservatives’ support base – was quoted by the CBC as saying that Bill C-13 comprises “the most draconian step towards police interference in people’s lives since George Orwell revealed the potential for it when he wrote 1984.”

Perhaps most surprisingly, Carol Todd, Amanda’s mother, appeared before a House of Commons committee to voice significant criticism. Though she applauded efforts to protect victims of online abuse, she stopped short of endorsing the new sweeping powers of surveillance and warrantless spying:

I don’t want to see our children victimized again by losing privacy rights. I am troubled by some of these provisions condoning the sharing of the privacy information of Canadians without proper legal process. We are Canadians with strong civil rights and values. A warrant should be required before any Canadian’s personal information is turned over to anyone, including government authorities. We should also be holding our telecommunications companies and Internet providers responsible for mishandling our private and personal information. We should not have to choose between our privacy and our safety.

If someone like Carol Todd – who has every right to be fully supportive of enhanced tough-on-crime legislation – is willing to voice such criticism of a proposed crime bill, people should listen.

Todd’s testimony is quoted in Mark Bourrie’s new book, Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know, a blistering, lacerating account of the Conservative government’s attempts to solidify power in Ottawa and to eradicate criticism or opposition to the sweeping changes it has been imposing upon the country. Bourrie systematically lays out the various ways in which Harper has centralized power around the Prime Minister’s Office in an attempt to control the government’s message and reduce criticism. These include (but are certainly not limited to) the imposition of a taxpayer funded government propaganda machine, which spent in excess of $100 million on ads promoting the Tories’ Economic Action Plan between 2009 and 2014 and saw the launch of a YouTube channel, 24 Seven, run by the government and intended to “replace the mainstream media with words and images that are under the complete control of the prime minister and his staff”; the revision of history by focusing assiduously on Canada’s martial experience as a warrior nation (what author Noah Richler has termed “the Vimy Myth”) and slashing budgets at Library and Archives Canada; the assault on evidence-based decision making, in part by dispensing with the mandatory long-form census; and the attack on scientists – even those in the government’s employ – who contradict the party’s core message.


Author Mark Bourrie

This last area has become extremely important to the Harper Tories, especially given one of their core constituencies: the oil companies working to mine Alberta’s bitumen-rich tar sands. In her 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein writes, “It has become routine … for the federal government to prevent senior environmental and climate scientists from speaking to journalists about any environmentally sensitive subject.” Bourrie provides specific examples of this phenomenon in action, including the infuriating case of David Tarasick, a researcher with Environment Canada, who published an article in the esteemed journal Nature detailing his discovery of “one of the largest ozone holes ever discovered above the Arctic.” “Media handlers in Tarasick’s own department gagged him for two weeks,” Bourrie writes. “When a Canadian reporter asked for an interview, Tarasick wrote back in an email: ‘I’m available when Media Relations says I’m available.'”

Perhaps even more infuriating, though the government’s media relations department was unwilling to provide access to Tarasick himself, they were more than happy to supply the media with sanctioned talking points, which they then indicated could be ascribed to the scientist. “The department, it seems, wanted to interpret the scientist’s findings and write them into its own words, then put those words into Tarasick’s mouth.”

Bourrie also details the ways the Harper Tories manipulate the rules and regulations of parliament to ensure compliance with their agenda, repeatedly proroguing the House – including once, in 2009, when the minority Conservatives were all but assured of a non-confidence vote as the result of a threatened coalition between the Dion Liberals and the Layton NDP – and invoking closure to limit debate “on almost every important piece of legislation.” The list of bills subject to closure that Bourrie provides is chilling, particularly given that the Conservatives employed this tactic again around Bill C-51, the government’s controversial anti-terrorism legislation. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has called the act “sweeping, dangerously vague, and ineffective,” and, in a staggering show of unity, no fewer than four former prime ministers have come together in opposition to the bill as written.

All of this, Bourrie convincingly argues, constitutes nothing less than an assault on the democratic principles this country was founded upon. To his credit, Bourrie, an historian by training, does not ignore the fact that other governments have acted in similar ways, citing in particular the federal Liberals under Jean Chrétien and Mike Harris’s conservative provincial government in Ontario. However, Harper’s Conservatives and their counterparts around the world are taking this style of governance to a new and dangerous level.

The problem, as Bourrie suggests in the opening pages of Kill the Messengers, is that once these systems of governance become entrenched, they will be practically impossible to dismantle easily. If citizens care about continued access to the mechanisms of a healthy democracy, the time to act is now, in a federal election year. Otherwise, we can resign ourselves to continued erosion of our freedoms and decreased availability of the kind of unbiased, impartial information required to make informed decisions about our future and its leadership.

Absent that, we can expect more propaganda disguised as news, increased corporate influence on public policy, and fewer and fewer democratic freedoms. And as Bourrie implies, it isn’t as if the Harper Tories don’t fully understand what they are up to. Communications Security Establishment Canada, the government agency tasked with cyberspying, has a budget of $300 million annually and last year was the beneficiary of a new 72,000-square-metre headquarters in Ottawa.

The CSEC mailing address, Bourrie points out with a straight face, is Box 1984, Station B, Ottawa.

The big chill: freedom of expression, self-censorship, and the limits of speech

January 12, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Last week was not a good one for freedom of speech.

The week began with the release of a survey conducted by the PEN American Center focusing on the effect that mass government surveillance has had on writers around the world. Titled Global Chilling: The Impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers, and conducted between August 28 and October 15, 2014, the survey found that writers from around the globe have engaged in a program of self-censorship as a result, in part, of revelations by former U.S. national security contractor Edward Snowden regarding the extent to which the American government has been spying on its own citizens in the wake of 9/11.

Consisting of data from 772 respondents – writers, editors, translators, publishers, journalists, and others – from fifty countries, the PEN survey found that “[l]evels of concern about government surveillance in democratic countries are now nearly as high as in non-democratic states with long legacies of pervasive state surveillance,” and that “levels of self-censorship reported by writers living in liberal democratic countries … match, or even exceed, levels reported by U.S. writers.” In the so-called “Five Eyes” countries – America and those that actively share intelligence with U.S. authorities (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) – fully eighty-four percent of respondents claim to be at least somewhat worried about government surveillance in their own countries. Forty percent of respondents from Five Eyes countries and twenty-eight percent of those from Western Europe admitted avoiding certain topics in their writing or speech as a result.

This is significant because, as the report points out, writers are like the canary in the coalmine where democratic freedoms are concerned. “Because freedom of expression is so central to writers’ craft, they may be considered particularly sensitive to encroachments on their rights to communicate, obtain, and impart information and voice their ideas and opinions. But the freedoms that writers rely on daily are the underpinnings of all free societies.”

The PEN report was released on January 5. Two days later, gunmen burst into the boardroom of the satirical Parisian weekly Charlie Hebdo, killing ten journalists, apparently as revenge for the publication of offensive images of the Prophet Mohammed. By week’s end, Paris had endured three full days of terror, and twenty people – including the three suspects implicated in the Charlie Hebdo massacre – were dead.

The Paris shootings sparked global condemnation, though not all commentators were supportive of Charlie Hebdo‘s particular brand of satire, which seeks to ridicule and belittle not just Muslims, but any religion or political institution that claims authority over others. Writing in The New York Times, David Brooks criticized the puerility of Charlie Hebdo‘s “deliberately offensive” humour and pointed out that “there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.”

Free speech is, of course, an easy concept to defend when it is speech someone agrees with. The acid test involves one’s willingness to defend speech one finds personally offensive, hurtful, or disagreeable. I may not agree with what Ann Coulter says, but I will defend to the death her right to say it: not exactly the heights of Enlightenment rationalism, but an important concept to bear in mind nevertheless.

The Charlie Hebdo killings throw a light on some very difficult questions about the limits of free expression in a democratic society. Does the right to express oneself extend to the right to engage in deliberately hateful, racist, or derogatory speech targeting identifiable individuals or groups? If we assume that the Charlie Hebdo journalists have an unfettered right to express themselves in any way they wish, must we also extend this right to, say, the thirteen members of the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who posted rabidly misogynistic comments about female classmates on a private Facebook group, resulting in suspensions for the perpetrators and damage to the university’s reputation in the national media? Where does my freedom of expression end, and your sense of security begin?

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the online hacker collective Anonymous has threatened to shut down jihadist websites; this, some would argue, is an appropriate response to last week’s atrocities. It is also a pretty obvious encroachment on the speech rights of a group certain people have deemed dangerous or unworthy of the protections extended to others.

These are the very issues brought up by Snowden’s revelation of the extent to which the N.S.A. has been responsible for collecting information on U.S. citizens. The ability to engage in the kind of broad, warrantless surveillance Snowden demonstrated can’t help but have a chilling effect, and the danger is that this effect will get exacerbated in the fallout from the Paris killings. Here in Canada, the Conservative government is already making rumblings about using the Paris attack as an excuse to beef up domestic surveillance activities, something that was already on the table as a result of an assault by a lone gunman on Parliament in Ottawa last October.

This is a response everyone who prizes democratic ideals should be very concerned about. It would be all too easy to use last week’s violence as an excuse to further erode the privacy and freedoms of citizens in the name of keeping people safe. That would be a mistake. Quoted in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, Farhad Khosrokhavar, an authority on radical Islam, says, “The question is whether European societies would like to be free, and live more dangerously because they can’t arrest everyone, or whether they want less freedom and more security.” An essential aspect of this freedom involves the unfettered ability of writers, artists, musicians, and other creative types to express themselves without fear of reprisal, either from masked murderers or institutional instruments.

“What makes a surveillance system effective in controlling human behaviour is the knowledge that one’s words and actions are susceptible to monitoring,” writes Glenn Greenwald in No Place to Hide, his book about Edward Snowden and the N.S.A.’s domestic spying program. “[I]f you believe you are always being watched and judged, you are not really a free individual.”

It doesn’t really matter who does the watching and judging: governments, religious leaders, or lone gunmen intent on avenging some perceived slight or historical wrong. If the effect is to prevent the free exchange of ideas, to increase the impulse toward self-censorship, and to silence dissent, then we all lose.

Inaugural edition of the Inspire! book fair was both “positive” and “deflating”

November 20, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

Inspire!_Toronto_International_Book_FairExpectations were high heading into the inaugural iteration of Inspire! Toronto International Book Fair, as were anxieties.

Initially intended as a combination trade fair and consumer event, the fair morphed into a consumer showcase, attracting more than 200 exhibitors and featuring over 300 hours of programming. Big-name authors graced the various stages arrayed throughout the Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s north hall, including Anne Rice, Sylvia Day, Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney, and Margaret Atwood, in her first public Canadian appearance to promote her recent story collection, Stone Mattress.

The fair, which ran from Nov. 13–16, was the brainchild of co-executive directors John Calabro, former president of Quattro Books, and Rita Davies, formerly with the Toronto Arts Council and the former head of culture for the city of Toronto. Along with co-executive director Steven Levy, whose credits include the One of a Kind craft shows, the Interior Design Show, and the Festival of Canadian Fashion, Calabro and Davies conceived of an event intended to allow publishers to interact directly with consumers, and to spotlight some of their marquee titles heading into the all-important Christmas buying season.

From the start, there were worries about how the fair would transpire. Indigo Books & Music was brought on as official bookseller for the main stage (where all the brand-name authors would appear), provoking consternation among independent booksellers and publishers (as did the notion of a book fair luring buyers away from bookstores during the most lucrative season of the year). The Convention Centre was seen as an uninviting location for a consumer-oriented event, and publishers questioned whether the potential sales would be sufficient to recoup booth-rental costs, which ran anywhere from $500 to $8,800.

Though it is too early to determine publishers’ ROI – most are still crunching the numbers – anecdotal evidence suggests that things at the fair were a bit more sluggish than anticipated. A generally sunny article in Publishers Weekly quotes Davies as saying that attendance for the weekend was in the “ballpark of between 20,000 and 25,000,” well below the promised 50,000 attendees.

“I hate that 50,000 attendees figure,” Davies told Quill & Quire. “All year we used 30,000, and I don’t know how that got into a late media release.” This is disingenuous, to say the least. An Inspire! press release dated December 20, 2013, announcing the addition of Nicola Dufficy as programming director for the fair, includes the headline “Four-Day Fair to Captivate 50,000 Readers with Programs Dedicated to All Things Books.” Davies’ name and contact information appear at the bottom, so it’s hard to understand how she was unaware of where the 50,000 figure came from.

Regardless, 25,000 attendees – which Davies suggests are accounted for by advance ticket sales, scanned tickets at the door, and a manual tally of children (who were given free admission to the fair) – falls well below expectations. Wandering the fair floor on Sunday morning was particularly disheartening, in large part, one suspects, because many potential fairgoers chose to attend the Santa Claus Parade instead.

St. John’s poet and children’s author George Murray, who was programmed on the kids’ stage on Sunday morning, found the experience “a little deflating.” Though grateful for the opportunity to present his recent children’s book, Wow Wow and Haw Haw, to a Toronto audience, external competition provided stumbling blocks. “The downtown was a traffic mess and virtually all the kids were lining the streets outside,” Murray says. “So I read to about three children and a smattering of adults.”

Low attendance levels were not the only hiccup in the fair’s first outing. The convention centre did indeed prove a tricky venue, though not entirely for the reasons anticipated. The north hall essentially amounts to one cavernous room, which meant that the various programmed stages were constantly competing to be heard over the general din, and over one another. Authors presenting their books on the Spark Stage, located at the west end of the pavilion, had to contend with noise from kids’ programming on the TD Children’s Stage, which was virtually contiguous. Introducing her memoir The Temporary Bride on the Discovery Stage on Saturday afternoon, author Jennifer Klinec was completely drowned out – to the mortification of everyone in attendance – by a booming voice resounding through the entire hall, enticing people to come to the Main Stage for Sylvia Day’s appearance. (Full disclosure: I was onstage to moderate the panel that was interrupted when Klinec was speaking.)

The nature of the room, and the set-up of the various exhibitor booths, made navigation difficult; large publishers with central booths – like Simon & Schuster Canada, Penguin Random House, and Scholastic – were easy to find, but Coach House Books, in the Discovery Pavilion, was tucked behind a pillar that virtually obscured the press from sight, and I never was able to locate the Humber School for Writers. Nor were the various stages clearly adorned with schedules delineating author appearances and times.

“I wasn’t sure going in if the convention centre was really the best venue to draw in readers, and particularly our readers,” says Coach House publisher Alana Wilcox, “and in the end I don’t think it was. … I had hoped, too, that it would draw an entirely different demographic for us, one that wouldn’t have bought those same books at local booksellers, but I’m not sure that’s true.”

Despite the hurdles, some people were optimistic about the weekend. Clare Hitchens, who does marketing and publicity for Wilfrid Laurier Press, says that the fair was a “positive” experience overall, providing the out-of-town academic press with the opportunity of “putting our titles in front of a broader set of readers.”

“Contributors to our Indigenous Studies series [including Neal McLeod, Lee Maracle, Joanne Arnott, Armand Garnet Ruffo, and Daniel David Moses] were well represented in the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Literary Circle,” Hitchens says, “and those conversations were invigorating.”

The First Nations programming was, by all accounts, one of the highlights of the fair: the stage was well attended overall, and the anecdotal response coming away from this aspect of the event is almost entirely enthusiastic.

A number of publishers I spoke to pointed out the benefit of having a chance to network with contacts from the Ontario Arts Council, the Ontario Media Development Corporation, and other professional associations, leaving the impression that the trade aspect of the fair was underutilized and could afford to be given greater attention should the event recur in future years. “I was under the impression it was to be more like a rights fair, like Frankfurt or London,” Murray says, “but I didn’t see any evidence of that.”

A few “tweaks” aside, Davies seems convinced that the inaugural edition of Inspire! will not be the last. “We’ll look at some of the floor plan, where we might send our marketing,” she tells Quill & Quire, but she doesn’t anticipate “any major changes.” Whether that will be enough to entice publishers – including HarperCollins Canada and House of Anansi Press – who stayed away this year, or whether there is a chance of achieving that magic number of 50,000 through the gate, remains something of an open question.

Sean Michaels’ novel Us Conductors the surprise winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize

November 11, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoIn the end, all the prognosticators and so-called experts were wrong.

Heading into last night’s Scotiabank Giller Prize gala, the heavy favourite to take the award was Miriam Toews for her sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows. Toews had already won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award the previous week, and the smart money had her taking the Giller for her heartfelt (and semi-autobiographical) book about a sister trying to come to terms with her sibling’s desire to end her life. Over the weekend, The Globe and Mail ran an infographic that included predictions from thirty industry insiders – editors, booksellers, former Giller jurors and nominees – predicting who would win. Of the thirty, nineteen selected Toews.

None of them – not one – picked the actual winner, Sean Michaels, who emerged victorious with his debut novel, Us Conductors.

In the experts’ defence, Michaels was a longshot going into last night’s event. He is a first-timer; only one other first-time writer has claimed the prize (Vincent Lam, in 2006, for the story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures). Johanna Skibsrud is the only other first novelist to win, in 2010. (Skibsrud had already published a volume of poetry prior to taking the Giller for  The Sentimentalists.)

David Bezmozgis, nominated for his sophomore novel, The Betrayers, had been shortlisted once before, for his first novel, The Free World. Frances Itani, nominated for her novel, Tell, is a previous winner of the regional Commonwealth Writers Prize and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Heather O’Neill, a shortlister for her sophomore novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, won Canada Reads with her previous novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, which was also nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award. And Padma Viswanathan, nominated for her second novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, was a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and a regional Commonwealth Writers Prize for her debut, The Toss of a Lemon.

But past track record and popular opinion proved no match for a quirky debut about a Russian inventor most famous for a musical instrument that harnesses air and electricity to create its ethereal sound.


Sean Michaels (photo by John Londono)

Us Conductors is the fictionalized biography of Lev Termen, inventor of the theremin (which the Beach Boys famously used in the intro to their song “Good Vibrations”); prior to its appearance, its author was best known as one of the creators of the music blog Said the Gramaphone.

In an essay for Quill & Quire, Michaels wrote that the inspiration for Us Conductors sprang in part from hearing Peter Pringle playing the theremin on CBC Radio. But the story of the instrument’s inventor, the inscrutable and eccentric Termen, served as the real “catalyst” for the novel: “Termen’s biography is a roller coaster of science, jazz, espionage, and heartbreak. There are secret laboratories and transatlantic crossings, Manhattan dance halls and Siberian prisons, visits to Alcatraz and the Kremlin, cameos by Charlie Chaplin and Vladimir Lenin, Rockefeller and Rachmaninoff, love and electricity.”

The Giller jury, comprised of writers Shauna Singh Baldwin, Justin Cartwright, and Francine Prose, must have agreed. In awarding Michaels the prize, which this year increased to a cool $100,000, they simultaneously defied expectations and validated the potential of emerging writers in Canada. Not bad for an award that has been criticized in the past as being hidebound and in thrall to an establishment mentality.

And not bad for an author the experts had all but written off until the moment the envelope was opened last night.

Two sides of John Boyne

October 24, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

Stay_Where_You_Are_and_Then_LeaveDublin-born author John Boyne is most famous for the 2006 novel (and motion picture) The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, an audacious work of young-adult fiction that addresses the fraught subject of the Holocaust. Among the book’s many honours are the Irish Book Award for Children’s Book of the Year, the Iowa Teen Book Award, and the Que Leer Award for Best International Novel of the Year. The book was also nominated for the British Book Award, the Carnegie Medal, and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a testament to Boyne’s fearlessness as an author: he is willing to tackle subject matter that many novelists writing for adults assiduously avoid, and to do so in a way that does not condescend to his younger audience.

Boyne’s new work for children is a First World War novel called Stay Where You Are and Then Leave. The protagonist is nine-year-old Alfie Summerfield, who is celebrating his fifth birthday in London on the day that war breaks out. For young Alfie, his birthday party is “both a happy and sad memory” – happy because he is in the presence of his family and his best friend, Kalena Janacek; sad because the adults in the group are consumed by anxiety over the declaration of war. Alfie’s mother, Margie, elicits a promise from her husband, Georgie, not to enlist – a promise Georgie breaks the following day.

After Georgie is sent off to France, and Kalena and her father – who are Jews from Prague – are shipped away for being alleged German spies, Alfie steals the elder Janacek’s shoeshine box and travels to King’s Cross tube station, where he launches a lucrative business shining shoes.

Boyne paints a sobering picture of life during wartime: the depredations, the lack – of food, of money, of security – the constant worry about friends and relatives in jeopardy. When Georgie’s letters from overseas stop coming, Alfie becomes convinced his father has been killed in combat; a chance meeting at his shoeshine stand suggests he may be wrong about this, and he embarks on a journey to discover the truth.

Boyne depicts the horrors of combat through Georgie’s letters from the front, and takes readers on a voyage through a hospital for soldiers sent home suffering from shell shock. These scenes are filtered through the perspective of the book’s nine-year-old protagonist, which lends them an added level of unease due to the psychic distance the author employs. Alfie is highly intelligent, but he remains a young boy, and the things he encounters exist far outside his level of experience and maturity.

It is a cliché that war forces children to grow up too fast, but Boyne uses his hero as a mechanism for examining the various tolls the First World War – and by extension, war in general – exacted on those left behind. Younger readers will likely not comprehend every implication contained in the narrative, but this is immaterial: the book’s refusal to talk down to its audience is one of its most impressive features.

After reading Boyne’s take on the Holocaust and the First World War, it would be easy to assume that his imagination runs exclusively to heavy historical material. Such assumptions would be wrong.

Barnaby_BrocketBoyne’s 2012 novel, The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket, complete with illustrations by Oliver Jeffers, is a lively, whimsical story that puts the lie to the notion that Boyne is incapable of crafting lighter fare for young readers. Which is not to suggest that Barnaby Brocket is an insubstantial novel: quite the opposite. The book takes up a subject dear to many young readers’ hearts: the perils and triumphs of being different in a world that prizes conformity.

Born to parents who pride themselves on being unwaveringly normal, Barnaby has a congenital condition that proves challenging, to say the least. Barnaby floats. In the hospital delivery room, the doctors and Barnaby’s mother lose track of him the instant he emerges from the womb; they locate him hovering around the ceiling. “Barnaby Brocket, the third child of the most normal family who had ever lived in the Southern Hemisphere, was already proving himself to be anything but normal by refusing to obey the most fundamental rule of all. The law of gravity.” All this is accompanied by an illustration of the doctors and nurses, along with the new mother, in the delivery room, staring upward in astonishment.

Barnaby’s unusual ability becomes such a bone of contention for his doggedly conventional parents that one day his mother cuts him loose from the leash she attaches him to and allows him to float away into a new life. He is rescued by two elderly women in a hot-air balloon, whereupon he embarks on an adventure of discovery that takes him to various locations around the globe, not to mention outer space. (Okay, middle space.)

As with his more serious novels, Boyne does not pander to his audience. The two women piloting the hot-air balloon, Ethel and Marjorie, are a lesbian couple, though this is not stated explicitly. Boyne hints at their situation in asides, such as the one in which Barnaby ponders why the women are holding hands. The implication, however, is clear: Barnaby and the women are kindred spirits, in the sense that they are all on the outside of conventional society in one respect or another.

Boyne deploys a light touch in dealing with these themes and subjects, consistent with the overall humorous tone of the book, which is a stark contrast to the subject matter in Stay Where You Are and Then Leave and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The author’s versatility is admirable (he also writes novels for adults, the most recent of which deals with sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church), and whether serious or lighthearted, his fiction for young people is characterized by an intelligence and a high-mindedness (in the best possible sense) that, in a literary genre sadly glutted with vampires, werewolves, and fantasy dystopias, is fabulously rare.


I’ll be talking with John Boyne about his creative process as part of the 35th annual Harbourfront International Festival of Authors tomorrow at 12:00 p.m.

The world in its unease: A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh and Walt by Russell Wangersky

October 22, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

A_Lovely_Way_to_BurnSometimes, fiction rubs up against real-world events in uncanny ways. When she began writing her latest novel, the first instalment in the Plague Times trilogy, Louise Welsh could not have known that it would be published the same year the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in recorded history would sweep across West Africa. And yet the disease, which is name-checked in A Lovely Way to Burn, bears striking resemblance to the fictional pandemic that serves as the backdrop for the book.

The atmosphere Welsh creates is grim: as a global pandemic colloquially called “the sweats” rages out of control, the citizens of London fall victim to the disease and paranoid hysteria in roughly equal measure. As people flee the city in large numbers, vermin begin to take over, a hospital is reduced to “a nightmare of darkened corridors,” and the streets take on “a blighted look.”

Against this stark background, former journalist Stevie Flint ignores advice and her best instincts, both of which tell her to leave the urban area until the sweats has somehow burnt itself out. But Stevie is driven by a need to find out the truth about her boyfriend, a celebrated doctor named Simon Sharkey, who has died, apparently of natural causes. In a city overrun by a deadly airborne disease, the term “natural causes” takes on dreadful connotations. Nevertheless, Stevie is convinced that Simon was murdered, and pursues her investigation in the face of antipathy from people who want to conceal the truth or use her – a survivor of the disease who may be immune – for their own ends.

In her acknowledgements, Welsh admits that her inspiration for the book’s mise en scène arose not from a specific outbreak but from a childhood characterized by “a mild obsession” with nuclear weapons, and from television. “The idea that the collapse of civilization is imminent has been around since ancient times,” the author writes. “Personally, I am amazed that we have survived this long, and while I don’t exactly look forward to the end of the world as we know it, the knowledge that it may be just around the corner probably enhances the way I live.”

The end of the world as we know it may be a bit rash: Welsh’s pestilent dystopia bears certain resemblances to the devastation in West Africa, but her fictional pandemic evinces a mélange of influences. The symptoms of the sweats are similar to Ebola, but the disease in the novel is airborne, making it much closer to SARS, which sowed panic around the globe in 2003.

Certainly, readers of A Lovely Way to Burn will not be able to dissociate the events of the novel from the events unfolding daily across the front pages of their newspapers. (Now that two American nurses have been infected with Ebola on U.S. soil, the West – in particular the States – has finally awoken to the urgent nature of the disease, something all too easy to ignore when it was confined to the African continent.) This lends the novel an added frisson that keeps the pages turning and the reader wondering edgily, “What if?”

Walt_Russell_WangerskyThere is unease aplenty in Russell Wangersky’s new novel, though not as a result of anything so exotic as a deadly airborne virus. The threat at the heart of Walt is staggeringly quotidian, which actually serves to make it that much creepier.

The eponymous character is a janitor at a grocery store in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Walt occupies himself by picking up the shopping lists discarded by patrons leaving the store: tossed indifferently into trash bins, or on the floor. A loner who has developed a keen insight into human psychology, Walt has perfected the art of developing remarkably accurate profiles of the people who create these lists based on the contents, the handwriting, and the type of stationery. If a patron – always female – catches Walt’s attention, he uses their abandoned grocery lists as a springboard to stalk them online, eventually escalating to voyeurism and home invasion.

Wangersky is a journalist, and his spare, reportorial style heightens the disquiet in the book, as does his technique of fracturing the narrative between Walt’s first-person narration, the diary entries of a woman he is observing, and the perspective of one of a pair of cold-case officers on the St. John’s force who think there is something suspicious about the disappearance of Walt’s wife. One of the cops, Inspector Dean Hill, has recently split with his own spouse; there are clear parallels in the way Walt stalks his victims and the time Hill spends outside his estranged wife’s home, observing her from the darkened windows of his car.

As a portrait of a disturbed mind told from the antagonist’s perspective, Walt shares elements in common with American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and The Collector by John Fowles. Like those books, Walt also features a male character who preys on women, but though Wangersky has written about a misogynist, it would be a mistake to suggest he has written a misogynistic book. He follows in the footsteps of Mailer and Dostoevsky, delving into the psychology of a deeply disturbed character as a means of attempting to understand the motivations behind some of the darkest impulses in the human psyche. That he does so in such a dispassionate way, and using such everyday circumstances as a backdrop, only serves to heighten the creeping discomfort on the part of the reader.


I’ll be speaking with Louise Welsh on Thursday, October 30, as part of Toronto’s International Festival of Authors. I’ll also be hosting Russell Wangersky at IFOA on Sunday, October 26, as part of a panel that also features Adam Sol and Matthew Thomas.

Patrick Modiano wins the literature Nobel; English-language readers react with confusion

October 9, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

Dora_Bruder_Patrick_ModianoIf my Twitter feed is any indication, I have something in common with the vast majority of English-language readers in North America: prior to this morning, I had never heard of Patrick Modiano. Today, the Swedish Academy announced that Modiano is the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature. The eleventh French writer to win the prize, Modiano is virtually unknown outside France. Inside France, it would seem, Modiano is something of a celebrity. Writing in France Today in 2011, Julien Bisson calls the novelist “the greatest French writer alive” and says that Modiano is among “the few French writers to achieve both critical and public success.”

The official Nobel press release indicates that the award – worth the equivalent of more than $1 million – was bestowed upon Modiano “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies.”

Born in 1945 in a suburb of Paris, Modiano won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1978 for his novel Rue des boutiques obscures. He has written about the Jewish experience in the Second World War, but most reports talk about his flirtations with the detective genre and his focus on memory as a theme. In the London Review of Books, Michael Wood writes:

Modiano says that like every other novelist he is always writing the same book, “on fait toujours le même roman.” Modiano more than most, perhaps. The mania for looking back is always there. His characters collect shreds of old evidence, handwriting, photographs, police files, newspaper cuttings. They follow the footsteps of vanished people, snooping on the world of others like unemployed private detectives who can’t find anything else to do. They have what I take to be Modiano’s own interest in Paris streets, particularly those of the outskirts, and they ceaselessly list addresses, consult old directories, make calls to telephone numbers no longer in service. His narrators are often given pieces of Modiano’s own identity, his age, his parents, his incomplete schooling, and sometimes his career – the narrator of Dora Bruder, for instance, has written Modiano’s books. But then presumably much of Modiano’s actual identity is also left out. These are versions of the author, reminders that we and he are historical beings, not attempts at confession or exorcism.

The Guardian quotes the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Peter Englund, as saying that Modiano writes “small books, 130, 150 pages, which are always variations of the same theme – memory, loss, identity, seeking. Those are his important themes: memory, identity, and time.”

Though not well known outside Europe, Modiano has been translated into English. Constance Markey calls Modiano’s novel Honeymoon, translated by Barbara Wright, “a poignant commentary on the fragility of human existence.” English writer Rupert Thomson refers to Honeymoon as “a conundrum and a lament” and says that “Modiano conjures up a world so delicate and elliptical, so fraught with uncertainty.”

Next April, Yale University Press will publish three of Modiano’s novellas, translated by Mark Polizzotti, under the title Suspended Sentences.

Notwithstanding the bigger names that had been bandied about as contenders for this year’s prize – among them Haruki Murakami or, again, Philip Roth – one of the most interesting results of the announcement has been the surprise among English-language readers on social media, most of whom, as Mark Medley pointed out, responded “with some variation of, ‘Who?'” This was much the same response that greeted the news that Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer had won the prize in 2011.

This brazen astonishment and almost proudly defiant ignorance of world literature should not be celebrated; it testifies to a shocking provincialism that refuses to look outside one’s own borders for entertainment or enlightenment. We all know Murakami – who is an international literary rock star – but how many North American readers have dipped into the more obscure translated material published by, say, New York Review Books or Europa Editions? (Elena Ferrante, the newly minted international literary rock star, doesn’t count.)

Sure, we’re aware of Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø, and a lot of people read the English versions of The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules and The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, though in those cases readers could be forgiven for not even knowing they were encountering works in translation, since the translators’ names are not usually listed on the books’ front covers. (This is a sneaky move on the part of publishers, akin to film studios that leave out the dialogue in foreign-movie trailers, to fool people into going to films with subtitles.)

But there continues to be a persistent and maddening aversion among English-language readers in North America to reading works in translation, or works that originate outside one of the “ABC” countries (America, Britain, and Canada). Readers steeped in a diet of American middlebrow or young adult literature are highly reluctant to seek out writing from places like Latin America, Russia, West Africa, or the Arabian Peninsula; it’s no wonder none of us (and here I include myself) had ever heard of “the greatest French writer alive.”

In the wake of today’s Nobel announcement, Groundwood Books publisher Sheila Barry tweeted, “English speakers could start demanding more books in translation. It’s a big world out there, and we don’t read enough of it.” Were we to do so, we’d not only be more cosmopolitan and knowledgeable about the world, but we might not have to scratch our heads and collectively ask “Who?” the next time someone outside our pinched little frame of notice wins one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes.

Unsurprising Giller shortlist plays it safe

October 6, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoIt’s turning into a very good year for Miriam Toews.

Last week, the Toronto-based author was tapped as one of the five shortlisted names on the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and this morning she became one of six authors to appear on the shortlist for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Toews’s sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows, is the only book to appear on both lists, meaning that she is the only author still in contention for the CanLit award trifecta, which will be determined when the Governor General’s Literary Award shortlists are announced tomorrow.

Joining Toews on a bulked-up Giller roster are David Bezmozgis for The Betrayers; Frances Itani for Tell; Sean Michaels for Us Conductors; Heather O’Neill for The Girl Who Was Saturday Night; and Padma Viswanathan for The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.

For those keeping track of such things, that’s four women and two men. Geographically, Montreal remains strong, with two contenders (Michaels and O’Neill) residing there, and a third (Viswanathan) having once called the city home (she currently lives in the U.S.).

On the publisher front, it was a very good showing for HarperCollins Canada, which scored with three out of four longlisted books (Bezmozgis, Itani, and O’Neill; the fourth was Rivka Galchen’s story collection American Innovations). This was a sharp contrast from the publisher’s “Black Monday” of 2007, when they had five longlisted titles and nothing on the shortlist. The three other books are from imprints of Penguin Random House Canada.

By any estimation, this year’s jury – comprising writers Shauna Singh Baldwin, Justin Cartwright, and Francine Prose – has delivered a safely predictable list. Toews (whose novel A Complicated Kindness was shortlisted for the 2004 Giller) has been a critical and reader favourite since All My Puny Sorrows appeared in April, and Bezmozgis, O’Neill, and Itani are not exactly literary outsiders. Bezmozgis’s first novel, The Free World, lost the 2011 Giller to Esi Edugyan’s novel Half-Blood Blues, but went on to win the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. O’Neill’s debut, Lullabies for Little Criminals, won the 2007 edition of Canada Reads, and was nominated for both a Governor General’s Literary Award and the Orange Prize. And though this is Itani’s first Giller-nominated title, her novel Deafening won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Even Viswanathan, arguably less well-known than the others, had her previous novel, The Toss of a Lemon, shortlisted for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book (Canadian and Caribbean regions). The real outlier is Michaels, better known as a music critic, who is shortlisted for a first novel about the man who invented the Theremin and also acted as a Soviet spy.

But all of these are big books from big houses, leaving the smaller, Canadian-owned houses on the longlist – ECW Press (for the novels Waiting for the Man by Arjun Basu and Watch How We Walk by Jennifer LoveGrove) and Biblioasis (for the story collection Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page) – out in the cold. It’s a bit of a retreat for a jury that confounded expectations by choosing a longlist that ignored some of this year’s marquee names – among them David Adams Richards, Michael Crummey, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Emma Donoghue, and David Bergen – in favour of younger or lesser-known writers. By contrast, the six shortlisted titles comprise the most traditional half of the 2014 longlist.

Neither of the short-fiction collections – easily the most technically adventurous books on the longlist – made it to the final round, nor did Basu’s debut, which is part existential quest, part road trip. And though they share themes of religious fanaticism and violence, Viswanathan’s sprawling epic about the fallout from the Air India disaster is much more recondite than LoveGrove’s scabrous novel.

When the longlist was announced, the jury commented that they were “celebrating writers brave enough to change public discourse,” and that impulse certainly seems to have been borne out in the six shortlisted titles. Once again, big themes abound: terrorism (Viswanathan); assisted suicide (Toews); cultural tension (O’Neill); war (Itani); Israel and the Middle East (Bezmozgis). Only Us Conductors feels less self-consciously serious. Which is not to suggest humourlessness: both Toews and O’Neill employ humour as a narrative tactic. Nor is it meant to slight the prowess of any of these authors. (Bezmozgis, in particular, has written a strong book, one that is unafraid to deal with politics in a forthright and uncompromising manner.)

But elevating books that emphasize moral uprightness and rectitude over more ambiguous pleasures such as aesthetic innovation or linguistic flair does tend to indicate that this jury is interested in improving readers as much as entertaining them.

So who will take home the prize, which has doubled to a cool $100,000? This is a robust year for Canadian fiction, but an unfortunate one for any writer who is not Miriam Toews. Unless all indications are amiss, she’s the one to beat when the winner is announced on November 10.

Surprising Giller longlist avoids big names

September 16, 2014 by · 4 Comments 

Scotiabank_Giller_Prize_logoMargaret Atwood. David Adams Richards. Ann-Marie MacDonald. Caroline Adderson. Michael Crummey. Johanna Skibsrud. David Bergen. Kate Pullinger. Fred Stenson. Rudy Wiebe. Emma Donoghue. Thomas King.

These are among the heavy hitters of CanLit who failed to land a spot on a startling 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. In their place are two collections of short stories, a debut novel from 2013, and a fictionalized account of the aftermath of the Air India disaster.

The longlist in full:

  • Waiting for the Man by Arjun Basu (ECW Press)
  • The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (HarperCollins Canada)
  • American Innovations by Rivka Galchen (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Tell by Frances Itani (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Watch How We Walk by Jennifer LoveGrove (ECW Press)
  • Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (Random House Canada)
  • Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo (Doubleday Canada)
  • The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins Canada)
  • Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page (Biblioasis)
  • My October by Claire Holden Rothman (Penguin Canada)
  • All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Knopf Canada)
  • The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan (Random House Canada)

Of the dozen books that made the cut, only the Toews was a foregone conclusion. All My Puny Sorrows is not only the novelist’s best-reviewed book since her 2004 Governor General’s Literary Award winner, A Complicated Kindness, it is an early contender for book of the year on many commentators’ lists.

Other than that, the longlist is a bit of a shock, as much for what is excluded as for what appears. House of Anansi Press (which published last year’s winner, Lynn Coady’s story collection Hellgoing) was shut out for the first time since 2007. Toronto’s ECW Press, on the other hand, scored two spots on this year’s list, one of them for a book (LoveGrove’s debut novel) that was published in late fall 2013.

HarperCollins Canada is the big winner, with four entries; Random House Canada and its various imprints count for another four. (Of course, if you count Penguin Random House as a single entity, it dominates the list with five out of twelve.)

Biblioasis is represented for the first time since 2011, when Clark Blaise’s story collection The Meagre Tarmac was longlisted for the prize. The Windsor, Ontario, publisher appears on the 2014 longlist with another story collection, for my money, one of the strongest books of the year. Rivka Galchen is the author of the other longlisted collection, her follow-up to the well received 2008 novel Atmospheric Disturbances.

Geographically, Montreal is the big winner this year: Basu is based in the city, as is Michaels, and two of the other books have strong ties there. Rothman’s novel uses the FLQ crisis as a springboard for a family saga, and O’Neill’s sophomore novel has been called a Two Solitudes for the millennial generation. (Rothman and O’Neill both also reside in the city.) This year’s longlist announcement took place in Montreal, and also contained news that the prize money is doubling, with $100,000 going to the winner and $10,000 to each of the other shortlisted authors.

The 2014 jury consists of Canadian novelist Shauna Singh Baldwin, British novelist Justin Cartwright, and American novelist and essayist Francine Prose. In a statement, the jury says, “We’re celebrating writers brave enough to change public discourse, generous with their empathy, offering deeply immersive experiences. Some delve into the sack of memory and retrieve the wisdom we need for our times, others turn the unfamiliar beloved. All are literary achievements we feel will touch and even transform you.”

The idea of “writers brave enough to change public discourse” carries with it a whiff of sanctimony: like the recent iteration of CBC’s Canada Reads, it appears the driving impulse behind choosing this list is not what is good, so much as what is good for us. (Which is not to deny the real literary strength of a number of the longlisted titles.) Large themes dominate – war (Tell), terrorism (The Ever After of Ashwin Rao), assisted suicide (All My Puny Sorrows), gender politics (Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab), Zionism (The Betrayers), religion (Watch How We Walk) – but books more focused on aesthetic performance and story (K.D. Miller’s All Saints, Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress) or that play with form in ambitious or unconventional ways (André Alexis’s Pastoral, Harry Karlinsky’s The Stonehenge Letters, Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country) have been left out.

The story collections, typically, represent the most stylistically audacious books on the list; Basu has written what might be described as an existential mystery novel, while Sean Michaels’ novel is an unconventional fictionalized biography of the man who invented the theremin (and was also a Soviet spy).

But on points, this longlist is surprising. The shortlist of five (or possibly six) titles culled from this dozen could go in numerous directions: it could feature mostly smaller, quirkier works, or it could be made up exclusively of novels from two multinational houses. Or (more likely) it could fall somewhere in between. If I were a betting man, I’d suggest the only sure thing is that Toews finds a place on the shortlist, probably alongside O’Neill and Bezmozgis. Then again, when betting on the Giller, previous experience (and the current longlist itself) has shown that safe bets are often illusory, and the house usually wins.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post misstated the number of nominations for Random House Canada and its imprints. The post has been amended to reflect the actual number.

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