Friday 29 May 2020

Rethinking Literary Categories

Sensing a "deep affinity" between stories by Chekhov and Dickens prompts Tim Park to wonder if there's another way we might classify novels, leading him to a category he dubs "The Belongers":
All Dickens’s stories, and all Chekhov’s, are about being in or out of groups. About belonging. The desire to belong. The fear of exclusion. The pleasure of inclusion. The fear of not being worthy of the group. The pleasure of being the most worthy. But also the fear of belonging to the wrong group, the wrong company. Or marrying the wrong person. Worst of all, of going to prison. The fear that others in the group are not worthy. Not as worthy as the character who directs our sympathy first thought, that is. They must be expelled. Or the protagonist must leave the group. David Copperfield is ashamed of his wife, Dora. He made a mistake to bring her into his family. “It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home,” says Pip in Great Expectations.
The new category looks to be quite capacious:
Were there other writers, I wondered, for whom this hierarchy of values held, novelists whose plots, one way or another, hinged around belonging and its attendant emotions, however differently they might come at it—just as Dickens and Chekhov come at it differently, and position themselves differently, though obviously obsessed by the same questions and construing life in the same way?

Over time, reading and rereading carefully, I found these authors who fit the description: Virginia Woolf, Natalia Ginzburg, Elsa Morante, George Eliot, Haruki Murakami, Graham Swift, François-René Chateaubriand. Many other lesser names, too, in genre fiction as well as literary. Many Italians, perhaps because I read a lot of Italian literature, or perhaps because the values of belonging are so powerful in Italian society. Dante, writing in exile, is obsessed with belonging; the deepest circle of hell is reserved for the treacherous, those who betrayed family and community.

Monday 25 May 2020

Designing Réjean Ducharme’s Swallowed

One of Canada's top book designers, David Drummond has been helping our poetry and fiction stand out for two decades. We asked him to walk us through his process in designing the cover for Swallowed, a new translation of Réjean Ducharme’s L’avalée des avalés, due out in the Fall.

"I knew from an early point in the design process that I wanted to show the main character in this novel, Berenice, being trapped or consumed by her life. These are the first two approaches I came up with, which I never showed because they weren’t quite on the mark."

"Graphically, I found this next treatment more interesting. The response from the press was that it was a fine cover, but too elegant and restrained. They wanted to convey a bit more of the madness of the girl through bright colours—vividness and extremity."

"This is the cover that was put in the catalogue because the deadline was looming. The press liked aspects of it—'how the eye appears swallowed by the yellow, to indicate the creeping madness of the young girl.' They still had some reservations about it, and wanted to revisit it in the future to see if their concerns could be addressed."

"Sure enough, the time came when they asked if I could take another crack at it. Sometimes it helps to revisit a cover design with fresh eyes. I tried to synthesize what was missing from the previous sketches and I decided to capture this notion of being swallowed. I printed out a repeating pattern of a face of a young woman with the title underneath it and made it into a cone shape. I didn’t want to distort the image in photoshop, but wanted to create an analog solution by photographing it."

"I liked the slight roughness in the image quality. You can see lines from the laserwriter printout and decided to leave them in without much retouching. The press loved the result, and felt it was the right cover for this book. They wanted to see a colour exercise before deciding on the final background colour."

How To Write A Blurb

Blurbs, argues Jason Guriel, are "a species of micro-criticism worthy of our scrutiny." One indicator of their quality, he says, is proportion:
It’s not promising when a book’s first few pages are nothing but blurbs—pull-quotes from an endless roll call of major newspapers and magazines, each one ecstatic. (See, for example, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in paperback.) Few books deserve that much praise (few books deserve praise, period) and it’s a minority of critics who can identify them anyway. The avalanche of good press is often triggered by groupthink: the unconscious, uncoordinated conspiracy that develops when the editors who assign reviews have bought into some book’s advance marketing or are responding to the pressures of the Zeitgeist.

One or two decisive blurbs is a much better look. You can trust the book that carefully curates its praise. My copy of Lolita features a single statement from Vanity Fair: “The only convincing love story of our century.” Blurbs should drop the mic.

Saturday 23 May 2020

My Summer with Alice Munro

An extended period immersed in Alice Munro's stories transformed Montreal writer Kasia van Schaik:
One summer, while visiting my hometown, a small mountain-locked settlement in Western Canada, I read an Alice Munro story every day for a month straight. After days spent serving customers and wiping down counters in a local cafe, it felt like a necessity; the only assemblance of an intellectual routine. I read her stories by the lake, on the margin of sand between the shoreline and the industrial train track; I read them on my back, legs crossed, book blocking out the sun like a small square flag. Sometimes a train would rumble past and alert me to my environment, which seemed less real than Munro’s black spruce or her fast-flowing, dark and narrow streams, which coursed through many of her stories, linking them the way rivers connect distant parts of the continent.

It was a lonely summer, my summer with Alice Munro. I was frustrated by the fact that my old friends now had boyfriends and permanent jobs and no longer made time for me, a precocious humanities student back from her studies out east, eager to show off the new words she’d learned. No one cared. I was—and the irony was not lost on me—essentially, an Alice Munro character. Juliet visiting her parents in Runaway—subtly punished for her “odd” life choices. (“Odd choices were simply easier for men,” remarks Juliet, “most of whom would find women glad to marry them.”) Or Del in the Lives of Girls and Women, whose restless ambition, but simultaneous desire for conventionality, disturbs the social equilibrium of her rural community. I read Munro’s stories to find myself in them but also to distance myself from the unhappy women I encountered in them. I would do better. (Secretly, I knew I would not.)

Wednesday 20 May 2020

A Primal Hunger

Olivia Gatwood explains her abiding fascination for a poet she describes as "a woman willing to laugh at those who sought to tame her, as much as she was willing to scream."
Edna St. Vincent Millay took an interest in poetry early in life, publishing her first poem at age fourteen in St. Nicholas Magazine, a publication for young people. She was encouraged by her mother to pursue the craft, eventually publishing several more poems toward the end of her teenage years. “Renascence” (1912), the title poem in her breakout collection, brought Millay her first acclaim as a writer. The poem is significantly less carnal than her later work but preludes the feeling that Millay would become famous for articulating—an urgent need to lessen the space between the individual body and everything around it, a primal hunger to grasp it all at once.

Friday 15 May 2020

But Was The Book Any Good?

Alexander Larman asks why it's such a struggle for reviewers to say what they think about a book. It doesn't help, he says, that editors basically have two choices when it comes to handing out assignments.
The first is to allow a significant literary figure to write a lengthy piece displaying their erudition, and which permits sub-editors to come up with a headline along the lines of ‘Julian Barnes on Jean-Paul Sartre’ or similar. The book itself is secondary, its coverage almost an irritation. And the other is nuts-and-bolts criticism, an engagement with an author’s intentions and aims where the fascinations of the subject are secondary to whether the writer has managed to make them accessible to a general audience. This may be less lofty, but is undeniably of more use to the profession, and probably to the potential purchaser, too.
The problem is that the "nuts-and-bolts" approach keeps losing out:
There is certainly a time and place for long thinkpieces about authors and subjects, but one also hopes that a brave editor will have the courage to say to the fellow of the Royal Society of Literature who has filed their piece, ‘Sir David, this was marvellous, but could you please let us know whether you thought the book was any good?’ There may be a moment of wounded pride, but the extra paragraph of pure criticism appended to the review could make all the difference for the practice’s survival in its current form. And, on behalf of writers and reviewers alike, I can only hope that such a survival takes place, to give us all something good to read.

Wednesday 13 May 2020

Réjean Ducharme’s Masterpiece—Now In English

On September 2020, Véhicule Press will be publishing Swallowed, a new authoritative translation of L’avalée des avalés, the late Réjean Ducharme’s 20th century masterpiece. Originally released in France in 1966 by Gallimard, after being rejected by every publishing house in his native Québec, Ducharme’s debut has been unavailable to English readers since 1968. The story of Véhicule Press acquiring the translation rights to Swallowed is a fascinating tale in itself—one that is part ambition, part luck and part fate. You can read Esplanade editor Dimitri Nasrallah’s vivid account of attaining those rights below. (When you're done, you can pre-order the book here.)
I first discovered that L’avalée des avalés had been out-of-print in English since 1968 when The Walrus magazine asked me to write an appraisal in the weeks following Réjean Ducharme’s death. The novel’s absence struck me as a significant cultural omission. An important part of Québec’s literary foundation was missing from Canadian letters. As an editor, I immediately sensed an opportunity, though I wasn’t sure how realistic a pursuit it was.

On the one hand, times had changed since Barbara Bray’s translation of the novel had first appeared in 1968. Canada now had a publishing industry that was now half a century strong. The oft-tumultuous relationship between English and French Canada had calmed and matured over the past two decades. Generations of legislation in Québec pertaining to the French-language had also groomed a wealth of homegrown translators who were better equipped to tackle Ducharme’s slippery prose, complex wordplay. and multi-layered allusions. But there were other obstacles. Gallimard is half a world away and used to selling English-language rights on a global scale, while Véhicule Press is a boutique independent in a country that is itself a subset of Gallimard's North American territory. Surely a half-century-old book from their back catalogue was a low priority for an organization preoccupied with international book fairs and a raft of contemporary titles to sell. They could consider our market too small for them. Would we approach the venerable institution responsible for publishing many of the twentieth century’s great authors?

An exchange began with their rights department. They were initially receptive to the idea, but had little background on the linguistic particulars of our region and no prior knowledge of our publishing house. Would we not want to publish the existing 1968 translation by British academic Barbara Bray, they asked. Our ambition was to have the novel re-translated by someone who had a natural understanding of Québécois idiom, and who could communicate the particularities of the original French in a way they had never before been served. Without a track record in international publication deals to bolster our cause, we were concerned our publishing circles were too far apart; Gallimard probably had more pressing activities underway.

As luck would have it, in March 2018 I was invited to attend the Paris Book Fair to promote my novel Niko, which had just been published in France. With a trans-Atlantic visit in hand, we restarted the conversation with Gallimard, to see if I could meet with their rights director in person and articulate the unique case for bringing Ducharme back to Canada. I am grateful to Camille Cloarec, at the time the Book and Debates Officer at the Consulate General of France in Toronto, for taking up our cause and communicating our desires to Gallimard from a much more reputed vantage point than our own. A few days later, I found myself in Paris, standing outside the unassuming door of the legendary publishing house, with less than two hours’ sleep after an overnight flight.

Once we were able to sit down in the same room, we were fortunate enough to hit it off and an agreement emerged quickly. It turned out that Anne-Solange Noble, the head of English rights at Gallimard, was born and raised in Montreal. She understood the underlying cultural value of what we were proposing, and saw it as part of the ongoing unique relationship between the French and English languages in Canada. We rhapsodized about the city, its street life, as well as people she remembered from Montreal’s Anglo literary community of the seventies. A new English translation, she agreed, could be useful to Gallimard in brokering rights requests in other markets.

Two years have passed since that fortuitous meeting. In that time, translator Madeleine Stratford has produced this new translation of L’avalée des avalés. Swallowed differs from Barbara Bray’s The Swallower Swallowed not only in its translator’s proximity to the regional roots of the original French, but also in its rendering to a looser and more figurative, more acrobatic English. Stratford’s translation of Ducharme is, to my ear, playful and lyrical and utterly timeless.

After more than half a century of languishing out of print, the book that transformed Québécois culture during the Quiet Revolution is finally available for Canadian readers to discover.

Saturday 9 May 2020

Beyond The Pronouncement

In a 2018 interview, Jericho Brown expresses concern that poets are prioritizing their political message rather using the form to surprise themselves:
No matter the race of the poet, I’m much more interested in a poem that is like the life we live. I want the poem that is like, “I saw that people got shot at the synagogue today, and I had a sandwich, and I miss my daughter.” And in actuality, that’s what a day in our life looks like, and the poem has to carry the tones of all those emotions. Sometimes I think that poems lately are interested at the outset in settling on an emotion, as opposed to gradually discovering several tones and seeing if those tones might accumulate into a single poem.

But I also think that part of this has to do with the fact that I am directing a creative writing program and that I am teaching and that I am teaching much more intensely than I’ve ever taught before, so I’ve been thinking about pedagogy a lot differently. I think one of the troubles of being a younger writer, of being someone who wants to write poetry, is that you put the cart before the horse. You put the ideas that you want to get to, or that you think you want to get to, before your language. If you put language first, then you can discover your ideas. But if you are thinking about your ideas, then you’re going to be at the mercy of the language you already know instead of one that you can figure out. And so maybe what I’m seeing in the writing of my students I’m ascribing to contemporary poetry at large. But I also do feel like I’ve read a ton of books in the last couple of years, and there’s a lot of knowns that I see coming through in the poetry, as opposed to unknowns that the poems discover.
He continues:
I do want poets to feel empowered to announce politically, but I also want them to go beyond the pronouncement. What happens at the beginning of your poem has to—because it’s a poem—be transformed by the end of your poem. So if the triggering moment for the beginning of your poem is a known political moment, I am fine with that, that’s great. But as I’m reading, I expect it to change because that was just the trigger. So I’m let down if everything is only some form of outside political thing or even inside political thing. I want the world in the poem to expand. I want the world in the poem to change. At least I want that for my poems. If I start with my mom, then I might end with the police. If I start with the police, then I might end with my lover. But if I start with the police, I don’t imagine I’m done with my poem if I’m still talking about the police.

How Can He Be Stopped?

Dracula is one of the great monster stories to come out of the 19th century. Olivia Rutigliano thinks Bram Stoker's classic makes a great deal more sense if we think of it as a detective novel:
The epistolary Dracula itself embodies, and is thematically about, material excess: too many characters, too many documents, too many clues, too many victims, too many possible answers. It is an overstuffed file-cabinet; a massive, multi-colored evidence board of a novel. And it exists in this expansive, immense way, in drastic pursuit of a single explanation—or, really, two: what monster is responsible for the bloodshed in England, and, once he is identified, how can he be stopped?

Wednesday 6 May 2020

CanLit and Vietnam

A new website promises to be an archive for Canadian writing about the Vietnam war, much of which has never been republished since the conflict. Robert McGill, who developed the site, explains the context behind such work.  
While the war angered Canadian writers, the years of the conflict were very good to Canadian literature. In fact, they were arguably its golden age. In 2006, when the Literary Review of Canada named the 100 “most important” Canadian books, thirty of them were ones published between 1964 and 1975—an astonishing number, given that the list covered over 400 years of history. The Vietnam War decade’s overrepresentation is less surprising if one considers that there was a surging interest in all things Canadian as a result of the country’s 1967 centenary, leading to an unprecedented boom in publishers, books published, and books sold. As it happens, many of those books addressed the war.

Canadian artists of all kinds, from musicians such as Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot to visual artists such as Greg Curnoe and Joyce Wieland, took on the Vietnam War in their work, but it was writers who most pervasively tackled it, not least because there were so many newspapers, magazines, journals, and book publishers to disseminate what they wrote. An indication of Canadian writers’ feelings about the war was offered in the 1968 bestseller The New Romans: Candid Canadian Opinions of the U.S., edited by the poet Al Purdy. Purdy claimed that one of his aims in producing the book had been to discover whether Canadian writers thought the American military presence in Vietnam was “just and honourable.” As it turned out, among the fifty contributors—including Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Michael Ondaatje, Farley Mowat, and Mordecai Richler—nobody suggested it was.

Saturday 2 May 2020

What To Read During Your Quarantine

As we continue to wait out the pandemic, we asked a number of Signal poets for any interesting books they'd been reading during the lockdown. Here's a roundup of what came back.

James Arthur
Author of The Suicide's Son
For me, the big discovery of this spring has been May Swenson’s Nature: Poems Old and New. I’d read Swenson’s individual poems before, but sitting down with this collection, I was amazed by how much variety there is from page to page. Also, Swenson’s poems are so outward-looking, full of generosity and interest (check out “Saguaros above Tucson”). And I finally read Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, which I loved for its scope and daring. I found the first of the three poems especially moving; it reminded me of Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That,” except in verse.

Susan Glickman
Author of What We Carry
I just finished The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel—the conclusion to her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. Although the books are narrated from his point of view in close third person (hence the occasionally annoying refrain "He, Thomas Cromwell"), her protagonist is oddly reticent, rarely admitting, even to himself, the motivation for his often heartless actions. On the one hand, the blacksmith's son manages to acquire vast wealth and power by disenfranchising both the church and the nobility; on the other hand, he seems to be driven by some unseen force, like a soccer player who in an instant sees the only way to achieve his goal. But in his case the goal—consolidation of absolute authority in King Henry VIII—led to his own death.

Sadiqa de Meijer
Author of The Outer Wards
I’m only halfway through Eternity Martis’ campus memoir They Said This Would be Fun but I can already highly recommend it. Like the author, I attended Western and am of mixed race, but unlike her I do not experience anti-black racism—so I was drawn to the book for the potential common ground, and for the chance to see a familiar place through a new lens. The work has deeply impressed me on both counts. The writing is lucid, funny, suspenseful, and devastating, and combines Martis’ personal experiences with thorough, current research. I am listening to the audio version, read by the author, and it is particularly compelling to hear this account in her voice.

Donald Winkler
Translator of The Hardness of 
Matter and Water
What I’ve been reading: Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, her tale of lives altered and entwined in the course of a 1980s Ponzi scheme, not as impressive as Station Eleven, but still very accomplished; Julian Barnes’ The Man in the Red Coat, an elegant romp through the French (and in part English) belle époque, spinning out from John Singer Sargent’s glorious portrait of the pioneering gynaecologist and man about town Samuel-Jean Pozzi; and having loved his Lampedusa, I picked up Steven Price’s previous novel, By Gaslight, a baroque and engrossing adventure shifting back and forth between Victorian London and Civil War America. In French, Paul Kawczak’s Ténèbre, a gloriously written, dense and dark exploration of the evils of colonialism in the late nineteenth century Belgian Congo.

William Vallières
Author of Versus
I’ve been reading Virginie Despentes' trilogy Vernon Subutex. She’s a 21st century punk Balzac, recording with brutal honesty, derision, and empathy the historical period we’re in. She jumps around from character to character (20 or so in total), reminding us that one of most salient features of our time is a feeling of refraction, of irreconcilable separateness. But Despentes holds those shards together and present us with something resembling a whole. I’ve also had the time to dive into The Map and the Clock, an anthology of English poetry edited by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke. The book stretches from the 7th century to today, and does a thorough job of including unfamiliar and forgotten voices. I love how it presents English poetry as the organic evolution of a tradition, rather than a series of compartmentalized, self-contained mini-traditions that don’t speak to each other.

Nyla Matuk
Author of Stranger
Here are three showstoppers. The London Review Bookshop Sampler #1: Denise Riley is a chapbook spanning the poet’s output from 1977 to the critically-acclaimed Say Something Back (2016) and a handful of unpublished poems. All are beautiful. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s tome, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism is an astonishing work of documentary reckoning, personal memoir, and moral imperative that dismantles institutions such as museums, which she argues are sites of imperial control. Evan Jones’ Later Emperors shows it's possible to write with the "sound of sense" while creating an allegory for our time. Jones uses the Roman Empire as a blueprint for learning from history, But his poems are not judgmental. They let readers see venality and decline, drawing from a range of personas steeped in the capricious nature of twin political valences—power and appetite.

Jim Johnstone
Author of Dog Ear
Two new poetry books—Evan Jones' Later Emperors and Leila Chatti's Deluge—have kept me company during my self-isolation. Jones is a real technician, and Later Emperors is full of historical reimaginings on the fleeting nature of power. Particularly poignant is the final long poem, "Plutarch to His Wife," a retelling of "Consolatio Ad Uxorem," wherein the protagonist considers his young daughter's death. An exercise in finding comfort in a time of suffering, the piece takes on new meaning in our virus-stricken moment. The poems in Deluge can be as mysterious as the sheeted figure haunting its cover. They're also visceral, "crouched and cursing" like the Virgin Mary of Chatti's "Confession." Appropriate, then, that a drop of blood is used to section each poem in the book, small drips before the flood of "Awrah," which explores the concept of disease as punishment.

Joe Fiorito
At the far edge of memory, there was a time when the world was animate; hills breathed; crops flourished or died according to unknown forces; stones pulsed with blood; and all events were either mysterious or banal. I am reading A King Alone, by Jean Giono, the great chronicler of life in the remote hills and valleys of Provence 150 years ago. The book concerns a series of murders, but more than that, it is a social history of ignorance, fear, and wonder; it might as well be about us and our time, because, as the coronavirus shows, we are still not much more than superstitious peasants.

Kateri Lanthier,
author of Siren
I haven’t wanted calming, gentle poems during the pandemic. My daily actions, following public health guidelines, are compliant and co-operative. So, I want catharsis! My 12-year-old son and I just finished reading Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf aloud. We revelled in the assertive alliteration, the life-and-death grappling, the poetry that’s travelled to us from the distant past. Poetry: what will survive of us. About that echo…I’ve been re-reading Heaney’s book of lectures, The Redress of Poetry. Tempting to tweet passages from his “Joy or Night,” a steely-eyed examination of “last things” in the poems of Yeats and Larkin. On order: fiction by poets! The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson, A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghíofa, and How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa.

Robert Moore, 
Encouraged by a recent Guardian review and warmed by the memory of photos of the author playing chess in the nude with Marcel Duchamp, I’m reading Eve Babitz’s Slow Days, Fast Company. It’s like driving a corvette through a moveable feast with the top down; sun, drugs, sex and a vast, peculiarly Californian carelessness. About 3 percent of the book is beautifully written. And what better company in this plague year than William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy? The ultimate user’s guide to navigating this vale of tears; simple, unadorned and absolutely indispensable.

Derek Webster
Author of Mockingbird
In paper: Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, smoothly updated into modern English by translator Burton Raffel; Timothy Donnelly’s The Problem of the Many, poems that seem to refuse all readerly expectations—but then satisfy in surprising, original ways; Wallace Stevens’ ten-part poem “The Auroras of Autumn” is once again working its elegant magic on me, along with Karen Solie’s profound The Caplie Caves. On my phone: Poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, whose smoky presence reminds me of early Eliot; Marilynne Robinson’s The Givenness of Things, mind-blowing theo-philosophical essays; physicist Brian Greene’s Until the End of Time; These Truths by historian Jill Lepore is essential reading; and Tim Parks’ entertaining grumble Teach Us to Sit Still.

Catriona Wright
Author of Table Manners
Outline, the first novel in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, frustrated me—the narrator was so remote as to be non-existent. Reading Transit now, I find myself admiring Cusk's technique. The narrator allows other characters to speak, while absorbing their voices into the text, which makes the novel feel like a collection of linked short stories, all centered on the idea of transit or transition, a potent theme for this floating, pandemic-time(less) present. Last summer, in Finland, I bought A Landscape Blossoms Within Me by Eeva Kilpi, one of the country's most famous poets. Since I won’t be travelling anywhere soon, I’ve been re-reading this irreverent, surprising collection. The poems describe a woman’s relationship with her aging body and her carnal urges, in exquisite deadpan: “Love is the most elastic human dimension. / It’s like a vagina. / It adapts to great and small. / Nature never lets us down.”

Laura Ritland
Author of East and West
Absurd, difficult, and strange: Virginia Woolf, writing her unfinished memoir on the eve of Nazi invasion (Moments of Being) or proposing a novel on “influenza” (On Being Ill); Samuel R. Delany's tilted, spinning sci-fi worlds of psychically deranged space-travellers and interspecies sex (Aye, and Gomorrah, and other Stories); Lisa Robertson’s female dandy, Hazel Brown, authoring Baudelaire’s poetry and crossing between Vancouver and Paris (The Baudelaire Fractal). At a time when I feel like I’m barely clinging to the bullet-train of history—swerving in equal measure between boredom and crisis—these books are giving me something to hold onto.