(I’m on the jury)
I went to the launch of Albert Moritz's Selected Poems - he's a lovely, honourable man, a model of generosity and commitment to literature, and when he reads his work it's like Wallace Stevens just walked into the room.
I'm finally reading the Dutch writer Harry Mulisch. I first came across "The Assault" - a short novel, careful and dextrous and subtle, describing a man's search for (and avoidance of) his family origins in WWII Holland (a la Modiano?). “The Discovery of Heaven,” on the other hand, is enormous, intellectual and comically talky. It's profound and profoundly entertaining, and different from "The Assault" to the point that it’s hard to believe it’s by the same author. (I like it when writers refuse to follow a single style or mode.) Now I'm trying to find "The Call."
I'll be teaching a new course, Fostering Narrative Competence: Reflective and Creative Writing for Clinicians and Educators, at the University of Toronto medical school's Centre for Faculty Development in the new year. Registration available October 9th.
The Toronto Review of Books' spring party!
Felix threw his fag-end into the water, it made a tiny hiss. In the harsh sea-light the whites of his eyes were soiled, and the skin around his eyes was taut, as if from a scorching, and scored with tiny wrinkles like cracks in a china glaze. The breeze brought me a waft of his breath, laden with the smell of smoke and the metallic tang of his bad teeth. I could smell his clothes too, with the sun on them, the shiny, pinstriped jacket with its prolapsed pockets and wilting lapels, the concertina trousers, the shoes like boats.
- from John Banville's novel Mefisto.
Describing characters is hard; this short sketch is brilliant. The details are precise and unusual - the whites of Felix's eyes are soiled, the skin around them taut - and a springboard for a leap into a doubling, somersaulting figurative comparison. When Banville moves from sight into another sense, smell, he does so in an active manner ("the breeze brought me a waft of his breath"), where saying it passively might be duller (*"I could smell his breath," say). Another reason this is so rich is that every line in the description takes on more than one job (it's Felix's breath that smells, but presenting it via the breeze reminds us that we're outside, on this walk by the sea). The word choices for Felix's clothes towards the end are vivid, odd, dreamlike and nightmarish too -- Felix's pockets are "prolapsed"? He's wearing "concertina" trousers? Figurative language takes us into other worlds. The whole thing, without saying a word about Felix's character, tells us everything about his personality.
Wallace Shawn's 1996 play The Designated Mourner is a complex and troubling series of monologues --spoken by the eponymous Jack, his wife Judy, and her erudite father, Howard -- about the highs and brutal lows of life under an unnamed authoritarian regime. It's the perfect thing to read today, but not because it's "prescient" - in fact, one reason it's so disturbing is that it refuses to be simplistic about the roots of savagery. You can listen to a production here, in which Shawn himself plays Jack.
"The two old men couldn't help smiling, but whereas Farder Coram's smile was a hesitant, rich, complicated expression that trembled across his face like sunlight chasing shadows on a windy March day, John Faa's smile was slow, human, plain, and kindly." - Phillip Pullman, The Golden Compass
Beyond the wonderfully precise simile, note the way that the sentence itself instances the comparison it's making. Look at how much weight is allotted to setting out Farder Coram's smile: It takes longer, it's more complex, many of the words are latinate, polysyllabic, abstract ("hesitant," "complicated," "expression") compared to those for John Faa, whose simpler smile is set out more plainly in shorter, simpler words. So that the sentence makes its comparison acoustically, almost tangibly, as well as visually, and intellectually, and gains force. (It's true that Farder Coram's smile is compared to something you might see and John Faa's is not, which troubles the point a little - but what you might see is hardly concrete. It's ephemeral, passing: light and dark.)
What I was doing in stubbornly pursuing my work as a writer for thirty years was simply forcing myself to assert a possible human path, a way, an attitude, a delicacy, a subtlety, a gentleness, a dignity.
- Football, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, p.64 (photo: Anna Toussaint).