Dissident Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, who came to Canada to escape the 1968 Soviet invasion in his home country, has died from cancer. He was eighty-seven years old.
Despite winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for his 1984 novel The Engineer of Human Souls, Skvorecky was not as well-known in his adopted country as he (arguably) deserved to be. Fans of the Glen Hansard/Marketa Irglova band The Swell Season might be surprised to discover that duo took their name from the title of one of Skvorecky’s novels.
In addition to his own writing, Skvorecky was the founder, along with his wife, Zdena Salivarova, of 68 Publishers, a Toronto-based house dedicated to publishing the work of Czech and Slovak writers who had been banned in their own countries. (The name of the house was a reference to the Prague Spring of 1968.) Among the writers whose work Skvorecky published were Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president who himself died just over two weeks ago.
In 1990, Josef and his wife were awarded the Czech Republic’s highest distinction, the Order of the White Lion, by Havel.
The independence of the Czech Republic allowed writers to be published freely in that country, sparking a surge in new publishing houses. Four years later, the Skvoreckys shut down 68 Publishers after having published at least 200 books, including novels, poetry and books on history, philosophy and autobiographies.
In a tribute to the couple’s work prior to the country’s independence, Havel wrote: “By publishing in our own language books that cannot be published in our motherland, you are in fact helping to preserve the spiritual identity and continuity of our nation. The long term effect of your work, which is simultaneously humble, but at the same time absolutely essential for our nation’s future, is almost impossible to fully appreciate.”
The National Post quotes novelist Ivan Klima as saying, “It was nice that the books were published in Czech, beautifully done, then smuggled here for thousands of people to read.” Skvorecky, whose own early novels were banned in his home country, was named to the Order of Canada in 1992.
In addition to his novels, Skvorecky also published poetry, autobiography, and non-fiction on jazz and cinema. His novel The Republic of Whores was adapted for the screen (as The Tank Battalion), and three other works – Sins for Father Knox, The Swell Season, and Murders for Luck – were adapted for television.
Even when a person’s death is expected, if that person meant something to you or had some measurable effect on your life, it is never easy to be confronted with the news that it has occurred. No one, least of all the author himself, had any illusions about the fate that awaited Christopher Hitchens following his diagnosis with esophageal cancer in 2010. Nevertheless, a certain measure of shocked sadness attended booting up my computer this morning to find that the author had succumbed to the disease at the age of sixty-two.
Although he engaged in the round of “bargaining” that accompanies aggressive chemotherapy treatments, Hitchens remained decisively unsentimental and clear-eyed about the experience of living with, and dying from, a terminal illness:
The oncology bargain is that, in return for at least the chance of a few more useful years, you agree to submit to chemotherapy and then, if you are lucky with that, to radiation or even surgery. So here’s the wager: you stick around for a bit, but in return we are going to need some things from you. These things may include your taste buds, your ability to concentrate, your ability to digest, and the hair on your head. This certainly appears to be a reasonable trade. Unfortunately, it also involves confronting one of the most appealing clichés in our language. You’ve heard it all right. People don’t have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality.
The comments come from one in a remarkable series of essays Hitchens penned for Vanity Fair magazine, where he served as contributing editor, and where a good number of his recent pieces (many of them collected in this year’s 788-page doorstop, Arguably) appeared over the last decade. It is hard to imagine anyone who has been touched by cancer – which, effectively, means most readers of a certain age – coming away from an encounter with these essays unmoved. They display the qualities that were best in Hitchens: his humour, his directness, and his boundless appetite for life.
Indeed, Hitchens was a man of boundless appetites, period. From Vanity Fair–editor Graydon Carter’s obituary:
He was a man of insatiable appetites – for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing, and, above all, for conversation. That he had an output to equal what he took in was the miracle in the man. You’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who could match the volume of exquisitely crafted columns, essays, articles, and books he produced over the past four decades. He wrote often – constantly, in fact, and right up to the end – and he wrote fast; frequently without the benefit of a second draft or even corrections.
Indeed, Hitchens’ own greatest fear was the loss of the two things that meant the most to him: his voice, and his ability to write. In one of his last published pieces, he addresses Nietzsche’s notion that what does not kill one makes one stronger, in language that is sure to impress itself upon anyone who spends a significant amount of time and energy in the manipulation of words:
I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my “will to live” would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.
There are those who take issue with Hitchens, and for good reason. His support of the Iraq war was distressing, and his knee-jerk retreat into arguments against “Islamofascism” (which in fact predate 9/11) is reductivist and often ham-fisted. His Vanity Fair essay “Why Women Aren’t Funny” has been justifiably critiqued for its misogyny.
I have no interest in rehearsing the various complaints about Hitchens and his increasingly retrograde political attitudes here.
What I will miss most now that his voice has been silenced for good is the quality that made him such a bracing and vital writer, whether you were in agreement with him or otherwise. Love him or loathe him (to his credit, he left little room for indifference), he upheld the cardinal virtue of all good writing: he was never boring. He was an outsized, opinionated personality, who could frequently err on the side of bullying, and often appeared deliberately provocative, but those qualities were part of what made him such a compelling polemicist. (Who, after all, wants to read a polemicist who pulls his punches or couches his arguments in passive-voiced banalities?) One of my favourite reactions to Hitchens’ passing comes from the Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne, who took to Twitter to implore, “Can we all just vow to write with less indirection, less throat-clearing, less of the exquisite, and more blood, meat, wine, astringents?” The very things, that is, that Hitchens excelled at.
The other reaction that struck me also appeared on Twitter. Comedian Patton Oswalt wrote, “‘Oh, FUCK me.’ – Hitchens, being presented with a double Balvenie & water by Jesus, Voltaire & Orwell at the Pearly Gates.” I like to think that if Hitchens, that obstinate atheist, was wrong, and he is currently looking down at all of us from some afterlife somewhere, he had a good laugh at that one.
Workbook: Memos & Dispatches on Writing. Steven Heighton; $18.95 paper 978-1-55022-937-0, 80 pp., ECW Press
“We make of the quarrels with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” So said W.B. Yeats, whose tidy observation provides the springboard for Steven Heighton’s little book of musings, or “memos,” as he prefers to call this collection of thoughts on writing, reading, and criticism. The epigrammatic structure of Heighton’s book, reminiscent of Marcus Aurelius, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, results from the author’s sense that fully formed essays are inevitably incomplete; the Hegelian cycle of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis will necessarily only lead to the discovery of a second thesis that will begin the process over again, and again, and again ad infinitum. “I grow impatient with the enterprise,” Heighton writes in his foreword, “and yet the alternative would seem to be mendacity through omission, which is akin to propaganda.”
Heighton is not a propagandist; he is a careful and thoughtful writer who uses the short, sharp shots in this book to sketch out an artistic manifesto of sorts, a fractured and meditative riff on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (the young poet, in this case, being a youthful version of Heighton himself). His numbered lists of memos address subjects – insecurity, jealousy, fear, failure – that occupy all writers’ thoughts, whether or not they admit to them. Thus, number eight under the heading “On Criticism”: “The writing life’s cruellest irony: while failure can make you miserable, success won’t make you happy.” In “A Devil’s Dictionary for Writers,” failure is defined as a “phenomenon that allows writers to retain their friends,” and a “writer’s writer” is “one who lives at or below the poverty line.”
These observations are refreshing in their honesty, directness, and humour. Also refreshing is Heighton’s refusal to compromise on the discipline required to write and read well, at one point excoriating lazy readers who are “unwilling or unable to empathize with characters different from themselves.”
Throughout, Heighton is concerned with emphasizing the importance of complexity and nuance, whether he is addressing writers, readers, or critics. Of the last, he quite accurately recognizes that the “bad reviewer’s art involves universalizing, in authoritative, pseudo-objective language, a totally subjective response to a book,” and notes that “you can always criticize at a higher level than you can compose; you can always spot flaws in a classic novel that you could never hope to write yourself.”
Heighton is especially hard on writers who abandon fidelity to an artistic vision in favour of mainstream acceptance and recognition: “Careerist writers don’t confront and relish challenges, they crash into obstacles, which they naturally resent and fear.” He rejects the careerist writer’s definition of success, which is inevitably caught up more in the pursuit of awards and accolades than a focus on artistic purity. He urges readers who are interested in truly significant art to bypass recent award winners and buzz books and turn their attention to those volumes that have stood the test of time, although he also recognizes the “small masterpieces, initially neglected” that “still languish unread.”
If there is a contradiction here, it is one that Heighton would likely embrace. Despite his book’s formal affinity with Kierkegaard’s epigrams, Heighton is not a fan of either/or propositions. He is aware of complexity, and confident enough to allow it free rein.
The summer is generally described as the “silly season” in the media: that part of the year, according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, “when Parliament and the Law Courts are not sitting,” during which not much happens and any news is frivolous or uninteresting. A propitious time, in other words, for TSR to take a much-needed hiatus.
Unfortunately, life intrudes. The silly season has turned out to be silly indeed, although not in the expected manner.
Anyone who follows municipal politics in Toronto will be familiar with last Thursday’s marathon session at City Hall, during which the council’s executive committee heard from a pantheon of stakeholders who appeared to voice their concerns over possible cuts to city services. Mayor Rob Ford, who won a landslide victory last October by promising to “stop the gravy train” of waste at City Hall, faces a daunting $774-million operating budget deficit, and has been looking for areas to save money (the much heralded “gravy” having failed to materialize). Those areas include garbage collection, public transit, and, perhaps most contentiously, libraries.
It might seem strange that libraries are the most contentious issue on the table, given that police services and public health nurses also face the potential axe, except for the fact that one of Toronto’s most visible and influential citizens, novelist Margaret Atwood, decided to take the fight to Twitter. On Thursday, July 21, Atwood retweeted a message that read, “Toronto’s libraries are under threat of privatization. Tell council to keep them public.” There was a link to a petition set up by the Toronto Public Library. Some of Atwood’s 225,200 followers (as of July 21, by the Toronto Star‘s count) took up the challenge, driving so much traffic to the server hosting the petition that it crashed for about 30 minutes. On July 22, Atwood followed up by tweeting: “Here is direct link to the @torontolibrary petition http://t.co/hPNMV8P to stop closure & privatization. Thanks to all, pass it around.”
And that, indeed, might have been the end of it. Except, you will recall, it was not just any citizen who chose to enter the fray. It was a writer with enough clout to get the attention of Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother and right hand on council, who was quoted in the National Post as saying, “I don’t even know her, she could walk by me I wouldn’t have a clue who she is … But she’s not down here, she’s not dealing with the problem. If she did, tell her to go run in the next election, and get democratically elected. And we’d be more than happy to sit down and listen to Margaret Atwood.”
That’s when all hell broke loose. On one side, Atwood’s supporters began howling about the philistines on city council, and on the other, supporters of the Brothers Ford started yelling about entitled elites and their artistic pretensions.
Now, on one level, this is all quite silly. What does it matter, really, if Doug Ford would recognize Atwood on the street? Does this say anything about his relative ability to govern Canada’s largest city? Well, perhaps, if you believe that someone entrusted to such a position should be familiar with the municipality’s more lauded figures. But for the moment, let’s give Ford the benefit of the doubt. What’s more problematic is his evidently dismissive attitude toward Atwood and her concerns, as well as his suggestion that for her to be taken seriously, she must run for public office. This flies in the face of our democratic principles, which are based on the idea that government works for us, not the other way around. It also flies in the face of Rob Ford’s own campaign slogan, “Respect for Taxpayers.” Whatever else Atwood may be, she is a taxpayer. So where is the respect?
To give Doug Ford his due, the (grudging) respect came the following day, when after a storm of criticism, he conceded, “What I was saying is, everyone knows who Margaret Atwood is. But if she were to come up to 98% of the people, they wouldn’t know who she was. But I think she’s a great writer and I look forward to her input.” The respect came from other quarters with the inauguration of a “Margaret Atwood for mayor” campaign backed by a Facebook page and various venues around the city.
Today, Atwood herself responded, saying, “I am not running for mayor yet. But if it comes to be true that people cannot voice an opinion unless they have been elected, then we are no longer in a democracy.” And here, Atwood has hit on what is decidedly not silly about this whole tempest in a teacup: the way in which our municipal leaders are trampling all over the idea of democracy while pursuing an ideologically driven program of tax cuts and smaller government.
Mayor Ford touted last Thursday’s executive meeting as “something this city has never done,” that is, allow upwards of 300 people to directly voice their concerns. The meeting began at 11:00 a.m., and Ford decreed that it would continue without a break until everyone who had registered to speak got his or her chance. Each speaker was given three minutes to address the executive committee, and the committee was allowed time to question the speakers. If a speaker missed his or her spot in line, he or she was not allowed another chance to speak. What this effectively meant was that a large group of citizens, some undoubtedly with families and other responsibilities, were stuck in City Hall, waiting their turn at the mic, in some cases for hours on end. The meeting finally adjourned after 6:00 a.m. the following morning.
When all was said and done, despite all the hurdles put in their way, some 168 speakers (and singers, and puppeteers) had made their voices heard. One of those was children’s writer Vikki VanSickle, author of Words That Start with B. VanSickle spoke in the wee hours of the morning, around 4:30 a.m. When she was asked about her book, she said, “Words That Start with B. Like budget.” Which prompted the mayor to mutter, “I can think of another ‘b’ word for her.” It was late, the executive committee had been through a gruelling ordeal. But for that, Rob Ford had no one to blame but himself. And his comment was definitely not silly.
You can hear Ford’s version of “respect for taxpayers” at the 0:20 mark in the video below.
Antanas Sileika has a complicated relationship with history. The author of the new novel Underground, a love story set among the Lithuanian partisans who fought the Soviet communists in the years immediately following World War II, Sileika has mined his own family’s past for material, but had to overcome his own discomfort with his heritage to do so. “I have this weird view of things,” he says, “this Lithuanian background, which when I was growing up was appallingly boring. You didn’t want to mention it. I didn’t even like the word.” Growing up in the Toronto suburb of Weston as part of what he calls “a pre-multicultural generation,” Sileika was acutely aware of a sense of otherness that attached to everything from his accent to his name. Until university, Sileika went by the name Tony; it was only in his post-adolescence that he began insisting people call him by his birth name. “I have these meek vestiges of uncoolness. But now that I’m older and smarter I realize you get your material wherever it is.”
Underground is the third book in a loose trilogy about the Lithuanian experience that also includes the story collection Buying on Time and the novel Woman in Bronze. The first book in the trilogy is about the suburban immigrant experience, something Sileika is passionate about defending. “To claim the suburbs are banal is a kind of hipsterism that drives me crazy,” he says. The second book is about a Lithuanian expat sculptor in Paris in the 1920s. For the culmination of the trilogy, Sileika felt that there was one more defining aspect of the 20th century he had to address: “I had dealt with the suburbs, I had dealt with art, and now I thought I had to deal with war.”
Sileika was helped in his research by a raft of recently published books about life behind the Iron Curtain. In particular, he credits Norman Davies’ Europe, Tony Judt’s Postwar, and – especially – Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands for exploring a time and a place that had largely remained unexamined. “The Iron Curtain is only now rising,” says Sileika, which made the subject attractive to him. “I thought, what we don’t know about here is the period in the immediate postwar. Nobody I knew, outside of Eastern Europeans had any idea about the partisan war, about the resistance. And it occurred to me that I’ve got something to say. I’ve got access to something to say about that war, and about the impossibility of choice.”
The “impossibility of choice” is a subject that weighs heavy on Sileika. The decision to drape his narrative in the garb of a love story was, in part, an attempt to highlight this impossibility. Much of the dramatic tension in the novel arises from the collision between personal desire and the march of history. “I’m particularly fascinated by people who have a series of bad choices,” Sileika says. The partisans in his novel, faced with the constant threat of capture, death, or betrayal, are confronted with numerous bad choices that only get exacerbated when mixed with affairs of the heart. “How do you express love in an impossible situation?” Sileika asks. “How does love even survive?” These are questions, he is quick to add, that hardly even occur to Canadians living in relative comfort at the start of the 21st century. “We live in a kind of history-free zone,” Seleika says. “We live in a Disney zone, where if you try really hard, you’ll get what you want. Whereas if you lived in Eastern Europe, no one gave a damn what you wanted. When history crushes you, it crushes you, and you’re lucky if you get out.”
Despite his evident investiture in his subject, Sileika was initially reluctant to write about it, because it presented him with unremittingly dark material. “You’re looking into a kind of heart of darkness. I have no idea how people work in places like Holocaust centres or oncology wards. It’s very, very hard.” Indeed, Sileika intended to do extensive research for the book (he also reads Lithuanian), but found he had to cut this short. “I was going to read all the books on the subject; I read about 35, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”
As if that weren’t enough, while he was writing the book, his son shipped off to fight with the Canadian armed forces in Afghanistan. “I wrote this book under extreme further stress because my son was in Afghanistan. So every day that he’s in Afghanistan as a front-line soldier, when I go out into the street in the morning, I look up and down to see if someone’s waiting for me.” The circumstances of Sileika’s personal life found themselves reflected in the material he was writing about. “I was writing about people who are in a kind of hopeless situation, and I felt hopeless myself.”
Given all of this, it is unsurprising that Sileika bristles at the suggestion that historical fiction is somehow an invalid or shopworn mode for writers to adopt, a suggestion that has been floated many times in Canadian critical circles. “It crops up in Russell Smith’s piece last year in Quill & Quire, it comes up from time to time in the Globe, or in the literary press: ‘We are so tired of the typical Canadian historical novel.’ Which gives me pause on all kinds of different levels.”
Sileika, who is the artistic director at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, becomes decidedly animated when confronted with the suggestion that historical fiction is the default setting for Canadian novelists. “The first problem is: who do you mean? Tell me six historical novels that you think are unjustifiably praised. Most people won’t name names, and I think, ‘You cowards.’ And the next problem is: what is it about the past that we should be ignoring? When all our output is about now: all the magazines, all the newspapers are about now. So to say that we shouldn’t be writing historical fiction is a bit hard to maintain.”
What is it that bothers us about historical fiction, Sileika asks. “Is it Elizabeth Hay’s novel about the Depression where the woman rises from the pillow and there’s a halo of dust around her? Is that what bothers people – that romantic thing? Or is it Jane Urquhart’s landscapes? If you read Jane Urquhart carefully, she’s very interesting in what she does with landscape. Most people don’t think about landscape. In fact, we’re stupid about landscape. She’s being smart about landscape. What’s the problem with that?”
“Why do people write historical fiction?” Sileika asks. “Well, why do they write romance or science fiction? Can you imagine suggesting to le Carré that he give up espionage?”
Moreover, Sileika suggests, historical fiction is in many ways harder to write than fiction set in the present, because the writer has to pay constant attention to historical detail and language. “When I think of the language of the past, and of a foreign place, this is also very tricky. Annabel Lyon had all of her characters [in The Golden Mean] saying ‘Fuck this’ and ‘Fuck that,’ which is a type of effect and it’s interesting in that way. My attempt was to strip all present expressions away and try to get to a version of a very direct language. But given that one must struggle more with the language, why should this elicit disdain? It continues to perplex me.”
Still, says Sileika, “I’m keenly aware that I have an anachronistic view of fiction, an old-fashioned view.” That “old-fashioned” view is predicated upon the idea that fiction should be about big subjects: war, love, death. This is another reason why the situation in postwar Lithuania proved so attractive: “It’s so dramatic there. All decisions have major consequences.”
Yet, for all of that, Sileika is also keenly aware of his distance from the events he is describing in the novel, and does not shy away from interrogating the relative comfort that has allowed him to write the story in the first place. “I ask myself this question: if I had relatives who died in the Gulag or lived in horrible conditions and I live here in luxury, what does this mean? How is this possible? Did people have to die for me to enjoy my chicken cutlet down at the St. Lawrence Market? Is history that perverse?”
Ultimately, Silekia likens his experience in Canada to being in exile. “I have a place far away which I can have access to, but I’m not of it.” And this exile, for the author, is something of a double-edged sword. “People of my generation are cast away in paradise. There’s no going back there for me. There is here, which is very important to me. … I’m still figuring these things out. It’s a project under construction.”
Anyone who has had occasion to pass by TSR of late has probably noticed that it looks somewhat abandoned: vines are drooping over the verandas, the lawn is overgrown, and the roof of the garage has caved in. This state of disrepair is the fault of the author, who has succumbed of late to a kind of lethargy that makes matters of daily upkeep seem close to impossible. However, with temperatures creeping ever upward, the robins returning, and the tulips doing their best to poke up out of the ground, it might be a good time to clear out the cobwebs, slap on a new coat of paint, and get the old homestead looking respectable again.
To that end, we’ve lined up a busy couple of months at TSR. April is jam-packed with goodies for the literary minded:
- The Toronto Public Library is hosting the Keep Toronto Reading Festival 2011. The program includes a series of events throughout the month, including appearances by 2010 Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson, Alissa York, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, and Judy Fong Bates, whose novel Midnight at the Dragon Café is TPL’s One Book for the year.
- In conjunction with TPL’s initiative, Jen Knoch’s Keepin’ It Real Book Club is spotlighting videos of public figures recommending a book that has changed their lives. You can hear, among others, Richard Crouse on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Fallis on Three Cheers for Me, Jessica Westhead on Bats or Swallows, and Iain Reid on The Beggar’s Garden. There are more to come, including, just maybe, one from yr. humble correspondent.
- April is also National Poetry Month, which is a chance to celebrate a genre that TSR has historically neglected. We’ll try to talk poetry around these parts in the coming days and weeks, and we’ll also try to inveigle a few guests to come aboard to do likewise.
- There are a couple of blog tours stopping by here in the next few weeks. Stop by on Friday for Antanas Sileika, author of the newly published novel Underground, and on April 30 for Sarah Selecky, author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted collection This Cake Is for the Party.
Selecky’s appearance on TSR leads nicely into May, which is Short Story Month. This year, Selecky, along with Canadian authors Jessica Westhead (And Also Sharks) and Matthew J. Trafford (The Divinity Gene) have inaugurated a project they’re calling YOSS: The Year of the Short Story. Their manifesto states that YOSS “aims to unite fellow writers and readers everywhere in one cause – to bring short fiction the larger audience it deserves.” An admirable endeavour, and one that TSR, which has always been an advocate of the genre, can wholeheartedly endorse. This site’s contribution will be more modest: for the third time, we’ll launch our 31 Days of Stories, featuring one story per day, plus as many goodies and Easter eggs as time and the generosity of fellow contributors permit.
So, an ambitious plan for the next couple of months. I’m planning to throw open the windows and let some air into the joint. Hope you’ll join me.
UPDATED April 8: An earlier version of this post neglected to include Sarah Selecky as one of the founders of YOSS. TSR regrets this oversight.
Clean cut, dressed in a grey, pinstriped suit, and seated behind a desk in an office at the Toronto headquarters of his publisher, Knopf Canada, Timothy Taylor could easily be mistaken for a corporate executive, which is what he very nearly was. Taylor holds an MBA from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and was well on his way to becoming a fixture in the financial world, working in commercial loans for TD Bank, when, with his wife’s blessing, he left banking in 1991 and took up a consulting business that allowed him time to indulge his first passion: writing. Twenty years later, with three novels and a story collection to his credit, the consulting business is long behind him, but the writing continues. The third of those novels, The Blue Light Project, has just been published, which is the occasion for our meeting.
In the novel, a terrorist has seized control of a television studio where a show called KiddieFame is shot. KiddieFame is a variation on our millennial fascination with American Idol–type reality programs, but instead of adults, the subjects are children. They perform for the cameras and are rated by audience members; if there is enough dislike for a particular child – resulting from antipathy or jealousy – the audience can vote to enact a “Kill,” in which a group of actors dressed as soldiers storms onto the set and “eliminates” the contestant in question.
“Reality television is a quasi-sacrificial system,” Taylor says in reference to the elimination aspect of KiddieFame. “Sacrifice has been a ritual function of all human societies, and we have evolved into creatures for whom real human sacrifice in superficial everyday happenings is unacceptable. And yet we maintain the ritual through these actions where we sort of ritualistically humiliate people.”
Mov, the hostage taker in the novel, is no stranger to humiliation: he worked for the government breaking down prisoners prior to interrogation at so-called black sites (think: Abu Ghraib). Indeed, there is a parallel between the ritual humiliation of contestants on a reality television show and the humiliation of prisoners at black sites – a parallel Taylor acknowledges. “One machinery is known, superficial, and everyday, and the other is hidden, terribly real, and profound,” says Taylor. “I would be roundly chastised for making any moral equivalency between torture and reality television. But do I think they respond to a similar impulse? Yeah, I do.”
Mov’s nom de guerre is a reference to Movsar Barayev, one of 43 Chechen rebels who took over the Nord-Ost Theatre in Dubrovka, a suburb of Moscow, in 2002. The Moscow Theatre Crisis was very much in Taylor’s mind as he wrote The Blue Light Project. “The Moscow Theatre Crisis really captivated me in reading about it and reading survivors’ accounts, and it struck me as the kind of incident that I wanted to explore.”
The idea of a hostage crisis came to Taylor early in the writing process. “It’s one of those narratives that you open and it’s clear that it can’t end well for everybody,” he says. “And that’s a good feature in fiction.”
It’s a good feature in the kind of fiction that Taylor is interested in, certainly. Listening to the author speak, what becomes clear is that no matter how thematically dense his work may be, he considers himself a storyteller first, and acts on the impulses that will help create a compelling story. When asked why he used a city on edge as a backdrop for telling three very personal stories, his answer is quick and definite: “I wanted it tense.” But lest this be mistaken for glibness, it should be pointed out that Taylor never seems content to operate on only one level. Having provided what he admits is a “superficial” response to the question of storytelling, he immediately puts that response into a more nuanced context. “All storytellers to one extent or another manufacture a precipice in order to speak about what it means not to be falling into it.”
If the precipice is the moral bankruptcy of a society that can simultaneously produce KiddieFame and the hostage taker Mov, what is there to prevent us from sliding inexorably into it? For Taylor, one answer is art, and in particular the kind of street art produced by anonymous graffiti painters and poster hangers in urban environments like Toronto or Taylor’s home town of Vancouver. One of the main characters in the novel, Rabbit, practices a variation of Parkour that he calls Freesteal, which involves infiltrating public spaces and leaving behind a work of art. Rabbit’s artistic work finds its apogee in a city-wide installation he calls The Blue Light Project.
Taylor’s fascination with Parkour led him to watch hours of YouTube videos about the subject while working on the book; he says that the Parkour notion of rejecting the limiting nature of urban topography felt like a nice complement to the idea of producing street art. “Ninjalicious – I love the name – wrote a seminal book on what is sometimes referred to as ‘urban exploration,’ or ‘urbex.’ There are relationships between urbex and Parkour, because the principle of Parkour is that I’m going to move from here to there in the cleanest line possible. That’s really why the vaulting and the climbing and the wall-running takes place. That act of liberating yourself from the constraints of the city is similar to what the urbex explorer does. Layering the street art impulse on top of it just made it a nice, attractive package.”
On the subject of street art, Taylor displays an equal fascination, coupled with an abiding curiosity about the impulse behind its creation. “I’ve watched street artists at work,” Taylor says, “and the fundamental question to me is, ‘Why are they doing what they’re doing?’ By no conventional metric can I make sense out of this activity.” What was most puzzling for Taylor initially was why these people would go out in the middle of the night, often in the freezing cold, to hang a poster or paint a mural on a wall, with no hope for recognition or acclaim. Indeed, the anonymity of the artists in question is one of their defining features. It was only when one of Taylor’s friends, Vancouver photographer Lincoln Clarkes, told him that street art is a gift that the impulse behind its creation began to make sense. “When he first said it, I thought that it was very idealistic. But the more I watched them, and the less I was able to explain what they were doing, the more it occurred to me that what was happening was a kind of gift-giving: it was an instance of a person acting without explicable self-interest, and that in itself is a remarkable moment in human affairs.”
Taylor is quick to point out that The Blue Light Project was written before Banksy appeared on the scene. “Banksy has to some extent complicated this,” Taylor says. “To Banksy, it seems that we can ascribe motives that we understand: there seems to be an interest in increasing his own profile and increasing his own fame, despite the false cloak of anonymity.”
By contrast, the anonymous street artists that Taylor so clearly admires are able to provide an offering to a troubled world that testifies to what the author sees as a pristine human impulse: they underline the redemptive quality of creativity by combining it with a truly selfless act. Whether that in itself is enough to pull a fallen society away from the precipice it teeters on is uncertain, but Taylor retains an almost aggressive faith in human potential. “Can art save us?” Taylor asks. “Perhaps not. But the magic of bringing something into the world for no reason that benefits yourself – from that source, the beauty of art arises, and in that is a glimpse of divinity.”
How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. Stanley Fish; $22.99 cloth 978-0-06-184054-8, 166 pp., Harper.
One of my favourite English-language sentences appears in Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct. The sentence, which was created by Pinker’s student, Annie Senghas, is a syntactical marvel, at first utterly confounding, but perfectly structured and absolutely, 100% grammatically correct. The sentence reads as follows:
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
On a first (and even second, third, or fourth) reading, that sentence seems like complete gibberish, a nonsense mantra repeating a single word eight times in succession. Only when one takes a step back and considers the various parts of speech the word “buffalo” can stand in for does the sentence’s meaning begin to come clear. Consider that “buffalo” can be a noun, the name of a city, or a verb. Then consider that the difficulty in Senghas’s sentence arises from the elision of articles and conjunctions that might serve as guides in breaking the sentence down into its syntactical components. Pinker explains it this way:
American bison are called buffalo. A kind of bison that comes from Buffalo, New York, could be called a Buffalo buffalo. Recall that there is a verb to buffalo that means “to overwhelm, to intimidate.” Imagine that New York State bison intimidate one another: (The) Buffalo buffalo (that) Buffalo buffalo (often) buffalo (in turn) buffalo (other) Buffalo buffalo.
Put that way, the sentence makes perfect sense, but is a lot less interesting. Senghas’s unadulterated string of words is a thing of beauty, a sentence to elicit joy and wonder in those for whom language and its structures are endlessly fascinating.
This category should include all writers, since writers employ sentences the way carpenters employ cords of wood. It never ceases to amaze me when a writer confesses to an indifference toward the building blocks of language: “Oh, I don’t really pay attention to the details of my sentences: I’m a big-picture person. I let my editor handle the small stuff.” Writers of this stripe, with their heads in the clouds, always pondering the grand questions of life without giving a second thought to how those questions get expressed in prose, strike me as dilettantes at best, for they lack a basic understanding of their craft.
This is what Annie Dillard was getting at in an anecdote in her book The Writing Life:
A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”
“Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know. … Do you like sentences?”
The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am twenty years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, “I liked the smell of paint.”
Stanley Fish makes reference to Dillard’s anecdote at the opening of his slim new volume, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. Fish is a self-described member of “the tribe of sentence watchers” – an aficionado and devotee of the pleasure a well-crafted sentence can offer, and a lover of the various ways in which good sentences can convey information, emotion, and meaning. He focuses on sentences rather than words because individual words set alongside one another are meaningless until they are organized into a rational and comprehensible sequence. The organizational ability of sentences, Fish avers, contains their promise and potential:
[Sentences] promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world. That is what language does: organize the world into manageable, and in some sense artificial, units that can then be inhabited and manipulated. If you can write a sentence in which actors, actions, and objects are related to one another in time, space, mood, desires, fears, causes, and effects, and if your specification of those relationships is delineated with a precision that communicates itself to your intended reader, you can, by extrapolation and expansion, write anything: a paragraph, an argument, an essay, a treatise, a novel.
This is a very functional assessment of what sentences do, focusing on logic, comprehensibility, and communicative efficacy rather than aesthetic or linguistic pleasure. Fish might take great joy in Senghas’s buffalo sentence, but it is not the kind of thing he is interested in here, being on one level a linguistic stunt: the delight it offers will likely be greater to linguists and grammarians than a general reader. By contrast, Fish’s purpose in this volume is practical and utilitarian: to illustrate the building blocks of sentences in such a way that readers will be able to break them down into their component parts and replicate them in their own writing.
To this end, Fish includes an analysis of hypotactic sentences (those composed by subordinating clauses and phrases) and paratactic sentences (those composed by an accretion of clauses joined by “and,” “but,” or other co-ordinating conjunctions). These he calls (rather inelegantly) the “subordinating style” and the “additive style,” and he provides examples of each for the purpose of demonstrating how, by copying the way each sentence is constructed, writers can achieve similar effects. Sentence length, Fish suggests, is immaterial: once a writer has mastered the building blocks, it is simply a matter of adding clauses to create lengthier, more complex sentences.
Fish suggests analyzing form in the absence of content, for it is the form of a sentence that determines its utility; the content can be anything at all. “It doesn’t matter what the sentences you practice with say; it doesn’t matter what their content is,” Fish writes. “In fact, the less interesting the sentences are in their own right the more useful they are as vehicles of instruction, because, as you work with them, you will not be tempted to focus on their content and you will be able to pay attention to the structural relationships that make content – any content – possible.” As a result, the examples Fish chooses (and they are plentiful) are exploited for their usefulness as teaching tools rather than their aesthetic interest. In illustrating the subordinating style, for example, Fish employs what he admits is a “modest” example from Henry James’s short story “The Real Thing”:
When the porter’s wife (she used to answer the house-bell), announced “A gentleman – with a lady, sir,” I had, as I often had in those days, for the wish was father to the thought, an immediate vision of sirens.
Fish points out the way the event described in this sentence is couched in layers of perception, how the bare bones of the sentence – subject, verb, object – are draped with subordinating clauses that position the event in time and reflect on their importance to the sentence’s abiding consciousness (the subject, or “I,” of the sentence). Stripped of its finery, the sentence reads, “I had a vision.” Everything else, Fish demonstrates, serves to position this vision in time (it is “an immediate vision” that occurs to the speaker after the porter’s wife makes her announcement), and to provide this vision with “a history and a pedigree.”
These are all formal considerations that have nothing to do with the content of the sentence; likewise, they have little to do with the grammar of the sentence. Early on in his book, Fish disavows grammatical concerns on the basis that this kind of knowledge, “divorced from what it is supposed to be knowledge of, yields only the illusion of understanding.” It is possible, Fish supposes, to rhyme off the eight parts of speech (noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, and interjection) without an understanding of what function these parts of speech play in a sentence. He goes on to suggest that a guide such as Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style is not terribly helpful because it assumes a level of technical knowledge that not all its readers will possess.
This repudiation of technical matters is an extension of the whole language approach to literacy, which assumes that comprehension will arise organically, as if by osmosis. But Fish ignores the havoc that ignorance of such technical concerns can wreak on even a simple sentence. It is all well and good to be able to differentiate hypotaxis from parataxis, but unless a certain level of technical understanding has been reached, a reader (to say nothing of a writer) will be unable to comprehend the difference between a sentence that reads “Aim for the heart, surgeons” and one that reads “Aim for the heart surgeons.” Simply plugging clauses into a sentence with no regard for how they interact with one another is a recipe for disaster, as a pair of sentences from Douglas Coupland’s novel JPod attest: “One of JPod’s quirks is an air intake duct in front of which you can puff away on anything. Hell, you could let off an Exocet missile, and it’d suck everything up and away in a jiffy.” The “it” in the second sentence is presumably meant to refer to the air intake duct, although the way the sentence is constructed, it actually refers to the Exocet missile.
This brings up another issue that Fish elides in his book: sentences may be individual linguistic marvels, but they only accrue meaning in combination. Analyzing the way first sentences “lean forward” toward the text they are introducing is one thing, but doing so in isolation can lead to problems. For example, Fish points to the “quiet yet pregnant first sentence” from Agatha Christie’s novel Nemesis:
In the afternoon it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper.
“This sentence seems simple,” Fish writes, “but in fact it communicates a surprising amount of information (and more) in its brief space.” One of the things it communicates, Fish would have us believe, is “that Jane Marple will find something in her second newspaper of the day and that, whatever it is, she will follow through on it.” This is true only if one has read on in Christie’s novel. The opening sentence on its own suggests nothing of the sort. Imagine a second sentence that read, “On this particular afternoon, however, her custom was cut short by a figure creeping up behind her and burying an axe in her head.” It would be safe to say that such a sentence would preclude the notion that Miss Marple would proceed to find something in the paper and act on it. Sentences, even great ones, do not exist in a vacuum.
“Do you think I could be a writer?” the university student asks in Dillard’s anecdote. “Do you like sentences?” the writer replies. Liking sentences is essential, but it isn’t sufficient, as Fish’s small book demonstrates. Early on, Fish compares great sentences to sports highlights: “you know, the five greatest dunks, or the ten greatest catches, or the fifteen greatest touchdown runbacks.” On one level, How to Write a Sentence reads like a literary highlight reel. Football coaches will spend hours drilling their players on individual plays and every so often one of them results in a spectacular buttonhook or forward pass. But in the end, it’s a series of plays in combination that determines who wins the game.
The CBC Literary Awards, an annual competition celebrating original, unpublished writing in both official languages, is looking for submissions for its 2010 edition. There are three categories – fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction – and the prizes are not insubstantial: $6,000 for the winning entry in each category, $4,000 for the runner-up, plus publication in Air Canada’s enRoute magazine and on the CBC’s website. The deadline for this year’s submissions is November 1, 2010.
As with the Ceeb’s annual Canada Reads competition, they are doing yeoman’s work promoting their literary awards online, with a website where aspirants can submit their material and a Facebook group. In addition to information about the submission process, the CBC website also includes writing tips, previous winners’ work, and other features, including an interview with former juror Heather O’Neill, who provides some insight into her criteria for judging the submitted material:
O’Neill admits that the stories’ brevity often determined how she evaluated the writing. “Because of the word count,” she explains, “you’re almost looking for the style of the writer because there isn’t time for story development. You’re looking for a new voice that’s talking to you, so you weed out the derivative stuff right away.” In terms of personal criteria, O’Neill finds it difficult to pinpoint exactly what grabs her in a story. She takes a stab at it anyway. “It’s funny,” she says, “because you look for something that doesn’t seem laboured, but to develop that, it’s very laboured. I guess I look for something lovely and light, with humour … I like writing that’s funny and sad, that hides the author.”
O’Neill also emphasizes the importance of strong beginnings. “The opening of your story is like a first date,” she says, suggesting that writers need to charm the jurors from the outset.
So dust off those laptops and get writing; the deadline for submissions is less than two months away.