A Gentle Illumination: The Stories of Jane Gardam

DSCN1357 - Version 2Gardam, Jane. The Stories of Jane Gardam. New York: Europa 2014.

As you know from earlier posts, I do have a certain fondness for Jane Gardam, so when a friend lent me her copy of The Stories of Jane Gardam, I certainly didn’t refuse the offer. I was more familiar with her novels, and I have to admit here that I tend to prefer novels to short stories. The short story is somehow just too short. I also suspect that in a way reading several short stories one sitting becomes more emotionally exercising than immersing oneself in the development of the novel.

DSCN1357 - Version 2One of the reasons why the good short story works, even in its limited scope, time frame, and cast of characters, results from the emotional journey the reader makes within the very concentrated span of the tale; however, such an experience can be a little daunting. I’m thinking particularly here of the stories of writers such as Alice Munro, whose stories are perfectly crafted and multi-layered, but whose intensity and somewhat bleak world view leave me exhausted. The stories I return to again and again are Joyce’s Dubliners and many of those written by Katherine Mansfield. It seems from what Gardam reveals in her introduction to the collection that she and I share this enjoyment of these two writers.

DSCN1357 - Version 2This introduction also tells us that The Stories of Jane Gardam was undertaken in response to a request from her publisher Richard Beswick of Little, Brown, who had “asked for ‘a big, chunky anthology of all . . . [her] favourite short stories’”(16). These “favourite” twenty-eight stories (thirty if you count the three sections of Telegony (341-381) as individual stories) span thirty years from 1977 to 2007. In some of them we meet characters such as Edward Feathers, Old Filth, whom we’ve met before in the novels. For the most part, I found the stories took me into familiar Gardam territory, a particularly English place, a middle-class place, a place of people who know the “passwords” (“Rode By All With Pride” Stories 155).

DSCN1357 - Version 2However, despite their sense of not quite superiority but of confidence they are right, the people in Gardam’s stories are often exiled from the world around them. They are returned ex-patriots who served a Britain that no longer exists; they are “dotty little” (“Easter Lilies”Stories 159) women with nothing left in their lives but the church, people who find that after being “out East thirty years there’s limits to Welwyn” (“the First Adam” Stories 177).  They live in Putney, Wimbledon, and Barnes. They are not as well off as they used to be. Often, they are growing old, cut off from the security of their pasts. As I reconsider these stories and try to find connections between them, I realise that what pervades much of the collection is a sense of loss: a loss of a time long passed, loss of youth, loss of love. Gardam’s characters are separated from their pasts, from their children, from their lovers. While the stories are pervaded by a sense of wistfulness at times, even nostalgia, it’s a delicious reminiscence, delicious as the memories evoked by the smell of lavendered sheets, say, or by the sound of a blackbird in an English summer evening garden that recalls other evenings, other times.

DSCN1357 - Version 2What prevents Gardam’s stories from evoking deep melancholia is her compassionate, gentle humour. As often happens in some of the best short stories, there is always a twist at the end, an epiphany or situational irony that turns the story around. Some of these twists are intensely satisfying: the really snobby and selfish tend to get their comeuppance as in “The Tribute,” (101-117) and “The Easter Lilies” (159-173); young lovers are reunited in “Lunch with Ruth Sykes” (41-56). For the most part, the stories suggest that good can ultimately come even from disappointment, and even when a story ends on a minor note as is the case in “An Unknown Child” (211-225) or “Rode By All With Pride,” (139-157) for instanc,” Gardam’s treatment of her characters’ despairing realisation of their own blindness is gentle and sympathetic.

DSCN1357 - Version 2Most of the reversals in her stories are not completely devastating to her characters. In “Hetty Sleeping” (22-40), for example, Hetty discovers her old lover and her tutor in art school Heneker has run off with the pub barmaid even though only the night before he had protested, “‘there was never anyone but you, Het’” (37). We are not distressed by Hetty’s loss of Heneker; we’re actually rather glad, for we understand Hetty’s situation only too well. What Hetty is actually mourning is not Heneker, but the dream of her lost past self. This is not a story about a woman trapped by societal and patriarchal expectations; it’s a story about how she has grown into the choices she has herself made. Heneker reminds Hetty that it was she who left him all those years ago, reminds her of her own tidiness, her desire for order, of the fact that even then she had already given up painting. She made the choice not to have a life with Heneker. It isn’t in her nature to live the sort of life she would have lived with him. It is in her nature to live the sort of life she has with her husband, Charles. The story ends with Charles bringing her tea. Gentle and understanding, he asks her to “‘wake up soon’” (40).

DSCN1357 - Version 2How well Gardam understands that feeling of nostalgia for what might have been and reveals how we know we don’t truly regret it. She knows how love is not always passion but often compromise, how people learn to accommodate each other. Even in her more gothic stories such as “The Boy who Turned into a Bike” (383-391), “The Green Man” (423-450), and “A Spot of Gothic” (89-100), for example, there is still that note of wistfulness. But that yearning is acknowledged with a kind of relief, with what I might call the optimism of acceptance, that sense of accepting and carrying on and making the best of things. There are some who would say that this is a very English trait, but then, as I said earlier, Gardam’s milieu is very English.

IDSCN1357 - Version 2n her introduction, Gardam asserts that writing short stories teaches you when to stop (16). I wouldn’t argue with that. Her tone in that introduction is valedictory. She ends by saying, “The luck in the writer’s life always is to have been able to use the sweets of fiction to get near the truth” (17). If the luck in a reader’s life is to meet a writer whose creation is “near the truth,” then the readers of Jane Gardam are very lucky indeed.






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An Unfinished Journey: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

the-underground-railroadWhitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Toronto: Doubleday, 2016.

This is an extremely disturbing novel for several reasons. First is its subject matter and second is what Whitehead does with his story. The Underground Railroad is more than merely the tale of one young woman’s escape from slavery on a cotton plantation in Georgia: it’s an acutely sensitive examination of racism and exclusion, of hypocrisy and hate, and of hope and endurance.

the-underground-railroadThe narrative follows Cora, who is already isolated by some of her fellow workers on the plantation, who consents to flee Georgia with fellow slave Caesar and head for freedom in the north. They take the underground railroad; in Whitehead’s novel, this is a real railroad running on tracks underneath the various states it crosses. Cora’s journey takes her to the Carolinas, Tennessee, Indiana and the North. Along the way, she experiences hope and exhilaration and enormous cruelty. The vicious slave catcher Ridgeway is on their track, and his only real failure in the past was his inability to find Cora’s mother Mabel who is believed to have actually achieved freedom. The novel ends with Cora joining a group of wagons heading for St. Louis and the trail to California.

the-underground-railroadNot only does Cora’s fantastic—I use the word advisedly—journey take her through states, it also takes the reader through time. For example, the eugenics programs and the syphilis research Whitehead refers to actually took place long after the antebellum period in which Cora makes her journey. In some ways, the novel feels like a collage of incidents from American history held together by the narrative of Cora’s flight.

the-underground-railroadDoes this historical inaccuracy undercut the effect of the work or contribute to its depth? The novel does, indeed, demonstrate just how flexible and powerful fiction can be. Fiction can transcend space and time. Fiction creates new worlds, plays with words. It turns the idea of an underground railroad into a literal railroad complete with stations running under the ground. It can build skyscrapers where there aren’t actually any. It can move events centuries. It can challenge preconceptions. It can be a cry for justice and equality. However, having an audience take your fantasy for fact may be even more troubling than having an audience miss one’s irony in satirical writing. Despite the fact of The Underground Railroad’s often being compared with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, it lacks satire’s hyperbole. The horrors described in the novel are not shocking because they are gross overstatement drawing attention to the ridiculousness of the object of the satire; they are shocking because they are true. The beatings, lynchings, rapes, murders, and betrayals described by Whitehead happened, but not always as and when Whitehead places them.

the-underground-railroadMy concerns are somewhat addressed by Juan Gabriel Vásquez in his August 5, 2016 review of the novel for The New York Times. Vásquez reminds us of “the myriad ways in which black history has too often been stolen by white narrators”; he goes on to say, “Whitehead’s novel is constantly concerned with these matters of narrative authenticity and authority, and so too with the different versions of the past we carry with us.”  A prime example of this difference is the history of Cora’s mother, Mabel. What Cora, Caesar, and Ridgeway believe about Mabel is actually not what Whitehead reveals to the reader near the end of the novel. Vásquez believes the novel to be “Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world.” He goes on to assert, “In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book” (“In Colson Whitehead’s Latest, the Underground Railroad Is More Than a Metaphor,” The New York Times 5 August 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/books/review/colson-whitehead-underground-railroad.html?_r=0. 20 February 2017).

the-underground-railroadThe National Book Award judges’ assessment of the work is that in detailing “the grotesque barbarities of  . . . [United States’] history” Whitehead gives “us an electrifying narrative of the past, profoundly resonant with the present” (http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2016winner_f_whitehead-underground-railroad.html#.WKtYeRjMzq0  20 February 2017). True indeed. As I commented earlier, comparisons between The Underground Railroad and Gulliver’s Travels are quite common. For me, however, the work that came to mind was Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Here, too, the naïve picara endeavours to find her way to autonomy. As she passes through each stage of a game that is apparently without real rules or order, she struggles to make sense of each individual scene in which she finds herself. Just as each square offers Alice a slightly different world vision and experience, so, too, each state or stage of Cora’s journey offers a different perspective on inter-race relations and politics, each one ultimately as bewildering as the last.

the-underground-railroadAlice discovers that even as a queen she is still in a world where the rules work against her, but Alice wakes up from her dream. Cora’s journey is the stuff of nightmare. Cora is on a wagon to St. Louis to join a trail to California. What will she find there? Whitehead doesn’t exactly finish the story. How can he? The story of  inequality and oppression remains unfinished, in need of resolution.








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Confronting the Cosmic Drama: Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic

Version 2
Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England. Weidenfeld and Nelson, 1971. Harmondsworth, Middx.: Penguin 1973.

I started a very leisurely progress through this book early last fall. A friend lent it to me with the suggestion, “Don’t read it all at once.” I took her advice but am still not sure whether I was right to do so. Because I read a section and then paused, I’m not sure whether I have a truly coherent sense of Thomas’ thesis in this book. But then I’m also not totally sure that Thomas has a single thesis. The work is panoramic in scope, covering, as its title suggests, two centuries of English social history, and this breadth is at times somewhat challenging as Thomas shifts between examples from the mid 1500s to those from the late 1600s.

Version 3If we think about it, life in 1699 must have been rather different from life in 1500. The period begins pre-reformation and ends in the Enlightenment. Taking a rather simplistic view, I suppose one could argue that Thomas is examining the transition from alchemy to chemistry, from a theological world view to a more philosophical outlook, from absolutist monarchy to the beginning of constitutional monarchy in 1689’s Bill of Rights.1

Version 6In his Forward, Thomas tells us that he is “attempt[ing] to make sense of some of the systems of belief which were current in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, but which no longer enjoy much recognition today.” He goes on to say that he has “been much helped by the studies made by modern social anthropologists of similar beliefs held in Africa and elsewhere” (ix). Despite Thomas’ remarks about “unhistorically minded sociologists” (205), his work at least to someone whose training is in literary studies not history seems distinctly to draw on the practices of the social sciences, and there were moments when one felt he was looking at the past rather as a biologist looks at specimens under a microscope, and for some reason, this point of view made me feel somewhat uncomfortable.

Version 4Perhaps it has something to do with particular turns of phrase. When discussing, for example, the development of witchcraft in Europe, he comments how what “was to distinguish it from the witch-beliefs of other primitive [my emphasis] peoples” was the witch’s “pact with the devil” (521). I’m not sure how comfortable we are today with designating any peoples or cultures as “primitive,” and I am not at all sure that we see past Tudor and Stuart societies as “primitive.” Far from it. True, Thomas does emphasise that his examination covers the “popular” beliefs of the period. But to what extent are today’s “popular” beliefs actually grounded in a firm understanding of contemporary science or philosophy?

Version 8Thomas’ somewhat paternalistic tones may perhaps grate somewhat, but the book was, we must remember, published in the early seventies. However, it is still a highly useful and informative resource, heavily researched and copiously annotated. Sometimes the footnotes will take more page space than the main text. There are times when one wants Thomas just to move on towards his conclusion. It was his section entitled “Conclusion” that I found the easiest to deal with. Unsurprisingly, here is where he draws all his research together and summarizes the previous chapters. If one were interested only in having the overview, this section would suffice. I would also have like a detailed Bibliography. Chasing down sources from footnotes only can be not a little irritating.

thomas-magic-1When published, Religion and the Decline of Magic received many accolades, deservedly so. It remains, I believe—my research into the matter I must admit has been scanty and superficial—one of the most detailed books on the subject. It remains available in several formats. If you are interested in the topic, you will find the book interesting.

Version 5If I were to try and abstract what I took from Thomas’s book, his thesis, if you like, I would note it something like this:

  1. Protestantism removes much of the magical from religion.
  2. Despite Neoplatonic influences, the development of the empirical scientific method is demystifying the practice of natural sciences


  1. The decline of rural village communal economies and the rise of the individual capitalist destroys communal ties and leads to a “conflict between neighbourliness and a growing sense of private property” (663).
  2. Such conflict leads to anxiety.

Version 2Thomas concludes, “If magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free from it” (800). I suspect not. Just what techniques allay our societal anxieties? How many of us consult our horoscopes every day? Buy crystals? Avoid walking under ladders? Take various chemical nostrums not necessarily listed in the Pharmacopoeia? In the sixties and early seventies there may well have been a certain consensus that the influence of religion was waning. I’m not sure that we can claim that to be true now. All in all, I’m not sure that anyone studying contemporary society would find anything that different in terms of people’s responses to social instability and change from what Thomas observes about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: a somewhat sobering thought.


Version 9
It’s  just about impossible to imagine Henry VIII or Elizabeth I even contemplating the possibility of such a Bill. William III had little choice but to accept and also had his Dutch experience of having to be appointed Stadtholder by the Dutch states. Despite these changes, however, at some levels, some things had not changed. Some people still consulted astrologers, for example. Of course, some people consult astrologers today. You can if you want access your daily horoscope on line. I’m not sure, however, how many medical doctors today would want to see your astrological charts as well as your x-ray reports and blood tests.







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A Prophetic Soul? Ian McEwan’s Nutshell

img_0926McEwan, Ian. Nutshell. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2016.

This is one of McEwan’s short books. It is a very clever and witty book indeed, but I’m not sure I enjoyed it as much as others have. I found it too self-consciously clever, and, curmudgeon that I am, I found it very hard to suspend my disbelief. As I am sure you know from other reviews, this first-person narrative is told from the point of view of a near term foetus.

The narrator’s mother Trudy is separated from the narrator’s father poet John Cairncross and although heavily pregnant with the narrator is having an affair with John’s brother Claude. In fact, they are engaged in more than simple adultery; they are planning the murder of John and the sale of the family home which, despite the fact Trudy has let it become an absolute tip, is worth millions of pounds. Does all this sound vaguely familiar? Of course, it does. Nutshell is McEwan’s reworking of Shakespeare’s Hamlet together with copious allusions to and wordplays on not only the rest of the Shakespearean canon but much of English literature, especially poetry. After a while, one gives up the mental annotations and just gives in to the plot, which is, I would argue, no longer tragic but darkly even viciously comic.img_0926

Gone is the gloomy late-adolescent Dane, and in his place is a highly insightful, precocious unborn child who does for a brief while consider not being and tries to strangle himself with his umbilical cord before deciding wholeheartedly in favour of life, choosing to be born into twenty-first century London and a world of identity politics. The narrator becomes harshly sarcastic as he considers the “new politics in university life” and the “strange mood [that] has seized the almost educated young” (144) anxious about “inconvenient opinions” (145). In utero, he declaims, “Away with the real, with dull facts and hated pretence of objectivity. Feeling is queen. Unless she identifies as king” (146). A precocious child indeed: one who quotes Hobbes and prefers a “Sancerre, preferably from Chavignol” (31) to a Sauvignon Blanc but also fears being abandoned by his mother and adopted into “the curiosity-free mindscape of the modern English peasantry” (43) and doomed to “somewhere on the thirteenth floor of a brutal tower block” (42).

img_0926The narrator’s vigorous and strident idiom suggests McEwan is channelling Swift, and surely the narrator is channelling McEwan. Even contemporary poetics come in for criticism: “Too much about the self, too glassily cool with regard to others, too many gripes in too short a line” (14).

I have to admit there are moments when I agree with the critique both social and aesthetic, but even as I acknowledge McEwan’s consummate skill in this novella, I’m still not sure that I actually enjoyed it. Nutshell is witty and brief. Truly, you must decide for your own self.


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A Little Faith: Love and Loss in Alice Thomas Ellis’ The Birds of the Air

Version 3Ellis, Alice Thomas. The Birds of the Air. 1980. Harmondsworth, Mddx.: Penguin 1983.

One of the joys of a physically small library outlet is that the library system’s books tend to rotate around the whole system, so browsing the shelves offers the opportunity for surprises. Another joy of using a library rather than buying books is that one finds “old” books that have disappeared from the shelves of the mega bookstores. Alice Thomas Ellis’ The Birds of the Air was one such find in my local library. In fact, finding the Penguin on the shelf was my introduction to Alice Ellis Thomas. By the time I was a few pages into the book, I was asking myself how I had managed somehow to miss this writer when she was publishing. I realised that when she first published in the late seventies, I was not exactly bogged down but certainly immersed in graduate work and was not reading contemporary fiction very much.

At only 152 pages, The Birds of the Air might more accurately be designated a novella rather than a novel. Nevertheless, it has left me with a taste for more Alice Thomas Ellis. In an appropriate synchrony, I read it over the Christmas period, the setting for the work.

Widowed Mrs Marsh has her daughter Barbara, her professor son-in-law and grandchildren to stay with her in her neat little suburban house for Christmas. She has Version 3great hopes for the season, but things cannot go well.  Barbara has just discovered her husband Sebastian is having an affair and therefore has hopes for a fling of her own. Mrs. Marsh’s other daughter Mary is permanently ensconced in the dining room, now given over entirely to her use, unable to recover from the death of her own son. Barbara’s son Sam is rebelling against the atmosphere and expectations of life as the son of an Oxford don and is frantically practicing his glottal stops and has dyed his hair green. Sam’s sister Kate insists on displaying her own precocious intellectualism to anyone who will listen to her recite poetry. Into this family gathering come the neighbour and amateur painter Evelyn, bringing with her the gift of a probably feral and certainly hardly weened kitten for Mary; Hunter, Sebastian’s editor accompanied by Sebastian’s American editor Otis Mauss who has been stranded in England because of snow; and the next-door neighbours, a retired Chief Inspector of police Denis and his wife Vera. Despite Mrs. Marsh’s hopes and plans, things are doomed to chaos.

All the elements are here that could lead to farce, but they don’t. Ellis’s control of her omniscient narration reminds one of Austen. Her subtle wit, as finely honed as a scalpel for Version 3cosmetic micro-surgery, her observation of the milieux inhabited by her characters is mordantly accurate. I particularly enjoyed her description of Barbara and Sebastian’s party focalized primarily through Barbara and Sam: Barbara anxious and distressed at the discovery of her husband’s infidelity, and Sam burdened with adolescent angst and torn between rebellion and actually being quite a “prudish child” (31). Not only does Ellis expose the familial tensions with surgical precision, she also turns her eye on the anxious posturings of academia and on the petty frailties of middle class society. How similar are Oxford and Honeyman’s Close, Innstead, in their anxieties, their little snobberies, and their comforting deceits and hypocrisies. There’s little difference between the “frail old don speaking in exaggerated patrician accents by which he had not come honestly (all his relations had remained down their native pit)” (29) and Evelyn whose “father having been a bank manager, . . .was qualified in such extreme circumstances to give orders to a mere policeman’s wife” (150).

One of the aspects of Englishness that Ellis captures so well is its embarrassment when confronted with any overt expression of faith. When Mary proposes a toast to God because “‘It’s his birthday,’. . .  Nearly everyone was shocked” (138), and Mrs. Marsh “avoided all mention of Catholicism in public, considering it, even after her years of marriage to her dear John, not quite nice.” The tense situation is resolved by the Chief Inspector’s raisingVersion 3 his glass to the queen (138). “How typically English,” you say. Precisely. Ellis captures the little details that reveal so much.

Just as she mocks the social restrictions the characters place on themselves, so, too, does Ellis focus on the emotional. What Ellis captures so perfectly is human emotional frailty and blindness, but even as she notes and even sometimes ridicules human weakness, her gaze no matter how piercing is compassionate. In its broken, faltering way, Mrs. Marsh’s family do love and care for each other, but they cannot express that love. Mrs. Marsh “didn’t dare tell her daughter outright that she loved her, since Mary was ill and might be frightened” (13). The Birds of the Air is above all a story of love and loss, having roots in Ellis’s own grief over the death of her son, Joshua, “who sang and sprang and moved/Now, in death, is only loved” (Dedication Page). The work’s title, taken from Matthew 6:26, reminds us of our value, reminds us of something beyond ourselves. Ellis concludes the novel with Mary standing in the falling snow, grieving her lost son.

Given Ellis’s strong Catholicism, it is hard not to make the connection between another Mary who grieved for a lost son and hard not to consider the implications of what Ellis as a Version 3Catholic believed of the love inherent in the death of that son. However, while the novel could be said to be a work based in faith, its purpose is not to prosletyse. Mary, however, in her grief is at the centre of the novel just as her occupation of the dining room puts her and her grief at the centre of the house. Ellis’ handling of some of her descriptions is extremely lyrical and when we look carefully we see that these passages are Mary’s consciousness. Ellis suggests there is beauty in grief, but, as I said earlier, the novel ends with Mary standing in the falling snow, melancholy, despairing, even longing for death, inconsolable.

There is consolation for the reader, however, in the concentrated detail of the work, in its lightness of touch, and in its acute observation and empathy.

This post has focussed primarily of the broader scope of the novel’s ideas. There is much to be said about Ellis’s handling of repeated motifs such as windows, cats, birds, bears; about her fluid shifts among focalizers, about her choice of names. I could go on.







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Subject and Object: The Anxiety of Reading Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo

sarajevo-celloGalloway, Steven. The Cellist of Sarajevo. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2008.

This was the last book I read in 2016, and perhaps needless to say it felt depressingly topical. Galloway’s novel was published in 2008 and addresses events from over twenty years ago, the Bosnian War and the Siege of Sarajevo. Galloway’s Sarajevo is bleak, cold, and lethal. Deciding whether or not to cross the street, whether to walk in a certain place: these have become life or death decisions.

sarajevo-celloThe novel has its roots in the performances of Vedran Smailović who risked sniper fire to play his cello in the streets of Sarajevo. Smailović, now in Northern Ireland, is a character in the novel only insomuch as he is there playing in the streets of the besieged city, and one of Galloway’s characters, the counter-sniper Arrow, is assigned without his knowledge to protect him. On a page all to itself, Galloway reminds us that his novel “is above all a work of fiction.” The next page is an epigraph from Leon Trotsky: “You may not be interested in war,/but war is interested in you.”

sarajevo-celloThe Cellist of Sarajevo follows three residents of Sarajevo, four if you count the cellist, as they endure the siege. Making the journey to collect drinking water from the only safe source is now an odyssey fraught with danger for Kenan. Dragan’s wife and son have long been in Italy. He must now live with his sister and brother in law because his own apartment is ruined. As an employee of a bakery, he is entitled to eat there, which he does to relieve his sister of further responsibility for him, but getting there is extremely dangerous. The snipers in the hills outside the town are always there. And then there is Arrow, not her given name, allowed, for the time being, some choice over whom she targets. When her superior is relieved of his command, what will the consequences be for her if she refuses to become a killer on demand?

sarajevo-celloMost of the novel is written in the present tense, so the reader experiences the immediacy of what is happening to the characters. Having three distinct narratives also underscores the way Sarajevo’s inhabitants are losing their sense of community and coherence. Normal connections are breaking down. For fleeting moments, strangers may connect while friends are lost. Memories and identity are insecure. Daily life has become a drudgery of fear. There are no super heroes here, only ordinary people holding on to the last shreds of and asserting their humanity, ordinary people paying the price of politics and hate. Further drawing attention to the way in which war robs us of ourselves, reducing us to nameless objects, Galloway never refers to Smailović by name. The other characters know of him only as the cellist who’s playing Albinoni’s Adagio to commemorate twenty-two people killed: people he didn’t know by name.

Warsaw 1939, Saigon in the sixties, Beirut, Sarajevo, Sana’a, Aleppo—we have seen it all before: nameless figures on the screen crying as they struggle dust-covered and bleeding from out of shattered buildings. Emotionally removed because the carnage is alien to us, we register the terrorized, the wounded and the dead as distant but familiar objects. The Cellist of Sarajevo reminds us of the individuality of those who live through and die in war. With one major exception Galloway creates subjects.

Vedran Smailović  was angered by the book and “never blessed this project” http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/out-of-the-war-into-a-book-and-in-a-rage/news-story/dcd310e8a08f2af80c8449892cf23433 Web. 7 January 2017). Galloway’s cellist is unnamed, objectified as a plot device. How should we respond to what Galloway does in the novel?  Do we see his use of Smailović’s experience and actions as a kind of theft, an invasion of privacy, or simply extremely bad manners to be forgiven because of the novel’s strengths?

While I am in no way denying that The Cellist of Sarajevo strikes the reader powerfully, I’m not sure that the novel has more than appeals to emotion. As a member of my reading group commented, “there is no real depth.” Another was disappointed in the work because as she said, “I like plot and character” (Private remarks. January 2017).  Our group spent a little time discussing particularly the apparent lack of plot and character development. Given the emotional, even moral power, of the work, it is possibly somewhat churlish of me to find it to be almost too documentary in there is not that much sense of resolution. Perhaps for Arrow? I’m not sure whether I sense any resolution for Kenan and Dragan. I found myself contrasting the novel with Timothy Findley’s The Wars, also highly documentary in its presentation, but which provides a sense of resolution for Robert Ross and the reader.

sarajevo-celloBoth Galloway and Findley are Canadian writers, and The Cellist of Sarajevo is very Canadian in some ways. The prose is spare, the tone, as noted above, documentary, and its focus survival. Yes, I know, it’s considered by some to be really quite passé to think about survival as a major theme in Canadian literature; after all, Margaret Atwood published Survival (A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Anansi) in 1972, three years before Galloway was born. Nevertheless, at the heart of The Cellist of Sarajevo is the characters’ need to survive, not just physically, but as themselves, autonomous, authentic subjects of their own lives. I just wish Galloway had gone a little further into those lives.

sarajevo-celloGiven the intensity of the novel’s initial impact, it might have worked better in the concentrated form of the short story. I can see it, if pared down to Arrow’s story alone, adapting really well to a screenplay. As it is, the novel is either too unresolved for a novel or too long for a short story. It shocks and disturbs, even raises ethical questions, but it moves too quickly and allows us only a brief opportunity to experience a frisson of empathy before we turn away from the horror. It doesn’t hold the attention as does Goya’s series The Disasters of War or Picasso’s Guernica. Those images resonate in my consciousness long after I’ve engaged with them in a way that Galloway’s novel does not.

sarajevo-celloYou can no doubt sense my strong ambivalence with regard to this novel. Perhaps if the novel had not been lauded in quite the way it has, I would feel somewhat less hesitant about finding some of that praise hyperbolic. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a very powerful, skillfully crafted novel; I’m just not sure it’s a great one.








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Navigating the Past: Cathy Converse’s Following the Curve of Time

foxgloves-at-mckercher-14062016Converse, Cathy. Following the Curve of Time: The Legendary M. Wylie Blanchet. Victoria: Touch Wood Editions, 2008.

I was perhaps at something of a disadvantage when I began to read this book; I have not read M. Wylie Blanchet’s The Curve of Time, a memoir of the summer voyages up the coast of British Columbia that Blanchett made with her five children in the 1920s and 1930s.

These trips apparently form the basis for The Curve of Time. Converse’s book is a short biography of Blanchet, the greater part of which revisits those places Blanchet and the children knew as they sailed up the BC coast. Hence Converse’s title Following the Curve of Time. I found Converse’s book interesting but not gripping. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps it moved too quickly, it’s prose journalistic rather than lyrical. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a sailor by any means, so it is unlikely that I am going to repeat any of Blanchet’s journeys. However, I do appreciate BC’s coastal landscape. After all, I have chosen to live on an island not far from where the Blanchets made their home nearly 100 years ago.  Nor was it because Blanchet herself seemed uninteresting. Far from it.

What I gathered from Converse about Blanchet was a picture of a highly self-sufficient woman, individual to the point of eccentricity, especially in old age, and, in a way, very At Anchor 2 10092015 - Version 2 – Version 3much a product of her own time even as she didn’t always conform to the more established patterns of behaviour for that time. particularly in her response to the First Nations cultures. I found myself comparing Blanchet with Emily Carr at this point. Converse admits her own difficulties in deciding what Blanchet’s attitudes were.

“It is hard to say if Capi was particularly sensitive to the nuances of coastal cultures: she certainly did her homework and was well read on some of the more visible traditions and cultural practices of the people she visited. She did not seem to be caught up in 1930s paternalism and stereotypical notions of ‘place,’ but she did talk of First Nations groups in img_0688the objective, as if they somehow existed outside of or were peripheral to her world view” (143).

Converse’s ultimate assessment of Blanchet appears to be that “Capi Blanchet remains an enigma, for she left only the books she wrote and the photographs she took as material from which her life story could be scripted” (185).

I think that what I found most interesting was Converse’s following Blanchet’s course up the coast and her observations of the changes that have and have not taken place since Blanchet and her children made their summer cruises. If you do not know BC, you may not find Converse’s book of any great interest. If you know the BC coast, then you will foxgloves-at-mckercher-14062016probably find the book has something to offer you.

I suspect that the really engaging work is Blanchet’s own. Certainly, the following article “A World Apart and Kindred: M. Wylie Blanchet’s The Curve of Time” by Maleea Acker (https://canlit.ca/article/a-world-apart-and-kindred-m-wylie-blanchets-the-curve-of-time/ Web, 30 December 2016) suggested that Blanchet’s own work would be well worth the visit.

The pictures below are of the waters around Southern Vancouver Island and particularly the Southern Gulf Islands. Capi Blanchet’s summer voyages took her much further north, but for any readers unfamiliar with BC’s coast, these images will give you an inkling of the kind of seascape Blanchet and so many years later Converse were navigating.




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