The anguish of My Son’s Story

My Son’s Story

By Nadine Gordimer

W.W. Norton

The book My Son’s Story is a white South African’s — Nadine Gordimer’s — description of the life of a black family in South Africa.

Gordimer’s protagonist is Sonny, a schoolteacher from a segregated “coloured” township, who becomes a political activist. Sonny is married to Aila and has both a daughter named Baby and a son named William. Sonny eventually goes to jail because of his subversive affiliations; when he is released, he is regarded as a hero in his community and once again becomes involved, both in the movement and with an activist named Hannah Plowman.

His infidelity affects everyone in the family. Will is the first family member to discover that his father is having an affair with Plowman, a white woman committed to liberating Blacks from apartheid. His knowledge of the affair forces an uncomfortable intimacy with his father. He seems to understand, on a very shallow level, the reasons for his father’s infidelity:

Of course she is blonde. The wet
dreams I have, a schoolboy who’s never
slept with a woman, are blonde. It’s
an infection brought to us by the laws
that have decided what we are, and
what they are — the blonde ones. It
turns out that all of us are carriers,
as people may have in their
bloodstream a disease that may or may
not manifest itself in them but will
be passed on; it has come to him in
spite of all he has emancipated
himself from so admirably — oh yes, I
did, I do admire my father. People
talk of someone “coming down” with a
fever; he’s coming down with this; to

This causes a certain amount of intolerance for his father’s actions. After Aila and Baby become aware of Sonny’s indiscretion, they become involved in the civil rights movement. In the past, Aila refused to be a part of the force against apartheid until she realized how important it was to her husband and their marriage. William is the only immediate family member who does not get involved in the movement. He ends up being a writer who narrates the book.

Nadine Gordimer is a renowned South African writer whose novels are well received internationally. The question is, however, does she have the authority to write about a Black family in which one member has an affair with a white woman? The point is especially important, since it’s a family involved in the struggle against apartheid. Speaking from a North American point of view, white North Americans have always portrayed Blacks in a limited light even though our society has been legally integrated for a number of years. They never seem to understand their special needs or problems. How can Nadine Gordimer accurately write about Blacks’ personal lives, feelings, and needs?

Moreover, a lot of Black females are sensitive to the idea of interracial relationships, especially in the case of Black men and white women. Gordimer does, however, portray the relationship quite tastefully; there is a deep friendship between Sonny and Hannah that simply does not exist between Sonny and his wife. Surprisingly, Hannah seems to have some sort of respect for Sonny’s family, including his wife; she does not say anything derogatory about Aila and even shows remorse when Aila is arrested as a result of her involvement in the struggle. Sonny’s feelings for his wife are evident when he becomes worried after learning about his wife’s involvement in the movement.

There does not seem to be the same type of intimacy that exists between Sonny and Hannah. The bond in this affair seems to transcend any preconceived notions about the relationship between peoples in a country like South Africa.

Barth’s Last Voyage dazzles

The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

By John Barth

Little, Brown

The Arabian Nights is a text with a history as confused as one of its own tales. Over the centuries, it has been the subject of numerous re-writings, revisions and augmentations. It is, after all, a story about the telling of stories, and one that arose from a tradition of oral storytelling. Since it cannot be attributed to any one author, The Arabian Nights seems to invite new generations of authors to try their hands at it, to make the Nights their own.

American author John Barth has made considerable use of The Nights as an archetype for the weaving of complex narrative structures through the interpolation of tales, and has parodied and borrowed from it in several of his works. His latest novel, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, follows in this vein by blending a parodic re-writing of the story of Sinbad the Sailor with the life story of an American journalist from Maryland.

Barth’s novel begins with the end: Death himself, “The Destroyer of Delights,” has finally come for Scheherazade. Where once she strove to keep him at bay through the telling of stories, she now longs for Death, who has already taken away her friends and family. But in an amusing inversion, Death demands from her one last tale before he will take her away, a “virgin” tale and not one of the dog-eared tales from The Nights. Thus she begins The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor.

The story of Sheherazade is told by “Simon William Behler, a.k.a. ‘Baylor’ the once-sort-of-famous ‘New Journalist,’” to a nurse in a mental hospital. In his tale Behler casts himself as both himself and as that other Sinbad from The Arabian Nights, the like-named porter outside the famed sailor’s palace who is invited in to hear of his adventures. Somebody is “that other, self-styled Sinbad, that nobody whom folks called (for convenience sake) the Landsman.” For “Somebody took that name because then and there, at the time we tell of, he was a streetwise castaway from the Here and Now who happened to know a thing or two about S. the So-Called Sailor, this wealthy Baghdaddy.”

Night after night in Sinbad’s palace, “Somebody” (Behler) and Sinbad batch each other story for story before the sailor’s guests. Barth’s brief re-telling of Sinbad’s stories are hilarious, full of absurd detail and farce. In Sinbad’s escape from the valley of gemstones and serpents, for instance, the famed sailor gives a gruesomely “realistic” account of how he tied himself to a piece of meat and was carried to safety by a vulture looking for food:

Alas, this particular side of mutton
had been so many times recycled in the
heat of the day that it now dripped
and stank like carrion … I scanned the
cliff top, hoping for a fresher
vehicle … [there being none]
nevertheless, breathing gingerly, I
trussed myself under the rotten meal
in hope of retrieval, and there spent
the most disgusting hour of my story
thus far. No rocs appeared — rocs
don’t eat carrion — but so many flies
swarmed down that with any
organization at all, they alone could
have carried us off … I praised Allah
the Tireless Schoolmaster, who deigns
to teach us lessons even when we’re
pat applying them.

The biography of Behler the American journalist is narrated in the first person in a conventional “realist” style. There is, however, a prominent use of symbols that undermines this realism and works effectively to bring an overall unity to these chapters. Behler’s wristwatches, for instance, serve as markers of the passing stages in his life. For the most part, Barth’s evocation of an American boyhood is charming and at times beautiful in its Proustian recollection of the pains and joys of early experience. Behler as an adult, however, is often such an unsavoury character that it is often hard to feel any concern for him (and we are apparently meant to). Barth slips into embarrassingly dated and at times offensive descriptions of Behler and his sex life with some regularity. We are told of how he “fucked his brains out” with one woman, had a (wince) time-transcending fuck” with another, and how he has the urge on a couple of occasions to punch out his wife. In this last instance, for example, after Behler’s violent thoughts his wife is depicted as more and more of a monster in what seems to be an attempt to justify this impulse. Sure, he never carries it out, but you really have to wonder what Barth is up to.

On a purely formal level the book is, as might be expected of Barth, structurally dazzling. These two story-telling Sinbads, the famed Arabian adventurer and the American journalist, become woven into each others’ tales. From opposite points they come to merge as almost a single character, Behler’s sensitive realist narrative becomes more fantastic, as Sinbad’s own fabulous story becomes more plain and realistic.

Barth does not, however, let the intricacies of structure interfere with spinning a good yarn. The prime idea he seems to have taken from The Arabian Nights is that a storyteller’s ultimate responsibility is to entertain. Chock full of sex (some of it of questionable interest, as mentioned), romance, intrigue and adventure, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, like its Arabian predecessor, is able to keep the “Destroyer of Delights” at bay just a little longer.

Matt Cohen’s subtle sorrow

Emotional Arithmetic

By Matt Cohen

Lester & Orpen Dennys

Seven years ago, Canadian author Matt Cohen decided to begin writing about “Jewish themes.” After publishing stories about rural Canada for fifteen years, he knew that this decision would have “important consequences for [him] as a writer,” but even he underestimated the radical reaction his readers and critics would display to his change of focus.

“They thought I had gone completely insane … because of their sense that I had betrayed by Canadianness by writing about being Jewish.” Despite the pleas of the critics (from whom artists are often inclined to take advice), Cohen has continued to write in this vein and has published four books since 1984.

His most recent novel, Emotional Arithmetic, concerns itself with a somewhat fragmented Canadian family, each member of which has a different perception of the war and the holocaust. The story is partially told by Benjamin Winters, a middle-aged, first generation Canadian. Initially, his narrative style seems as disinterested and unbiased as one could reasonably expect from a first person narrator who is also a main character. His confidence and ironic wit quickly earns our trust that he will responsibly take on the important task of being our eyes in his world. Benjamin will surely be the one to endure the family crises, see through the shallowness of others and make all the right value judgments with incisive insights and cutting wit, so that despite his own small problems, he will emerge at the conclusion of the story as a well-balanced, clearheaded and mature third person narrator with whom we can all identify.

Then again, maybe he won’t. Early in the novel, Benjamin recalls for us his frustration at being forced by his father to learn French while staying on the family farm one summer. His father informs him that a Frenchman had cleared the land for the farm, and the Frenchman’s son, who was missing a leg from the war, had built the barn. Benjamin muses:

Because the son of a Frenchman had got
his leg shot off, I, Benjamin Winters,
had to learn to speak French. It was a
familiar kind of equation. For
example: because the Germans had baked
six million Jews, I, Benjamin Winters,
was one day going to have a bar
mitzvah in a Kingston synagogue.

Something about his tone causes one to doubt that his portrayal of people who survived the war and holocaust is wholly accurate and sensitive. Once our suspicion is aroused, we become more and more aware that Benjamin’s analysis of life around him is not a wholly accurate one, just his own.

Fortunately, we do not experience the entire story from Benjamin’s point of view, as the first several chapters would have us believe. Much of the character development in the novel takes place within the thoughts and memories of the individual characters. Melanie, Ben’s mother, had been held as a child at Drancy in Paris, from where Jews were regularly shipped to concentration camps. At Drancy, having lost both of her parents, she was cared for by Jakob Bronski, a Russian translator and poet. After the war, Jakob was held until the present time in a mental hospital in the Soviet Union, while Melanie grew up in New England, married an eminent historian and had a son. Upon Jakob’s release, which gains considerable press, Melanie invites him to live with the family in Canada.

Melanie maintains file upon file of statistics about the number of Jews taken during the holocaust, where they were detained, how they were killed, how many committed suicide and how few survived. Her study is an obsession which overtakes her and leads to manic depression. Cohen periodically punctuates the memories of her internment with numbers and statistics from her files; hence the title of the book, Emotional Arithmetic. Melanie receives no emotional help from her promiscuous husband Doctor David Winters, who prefers to philander rather than face anything which might resemble a problem. While Melanie’s memories are mostly concerned with her childhood during the war, her son Ben frequently recalls bitter events during the course of his parent’s turbulent marriage and frequent break-ups. The two streams of memory piece together the puzzle of Melanie’s present mental illness.

Throughout the novel our sympathies are unquestionably with the mentally ailing Melanie, while her husband David continually escapes the troubled world of his family to seek solace in not-so-illicit affairs. Near the conclusion of the novel, in an argument with Melanie, Ben defends his father, saying, “Maybe he only anted to marry you, not six million dead Jews.” Thus son follows father into a world in which marriage is only for better, and in which to escape the weakness of one’s loved ones, one need only flee to another “universe of soft skin, warm arms.” Our narrator has lost his vision and refuses to put on his glasses. The book concludes with Melanie reaching out to her grandson, perhaps homing against hope that the cycle of cynical indifference can be broken.

Matt Cohen communicates various aspects of his characters’ “life stories” at once in a manner which attempts to imitate the inimitable ways of the mind and memory. Important details are withheld and then spring upon us suddenly out of the past. The past thus becomes the present, both in the respect that the memory takes us back to the event when the character experienced it, and in the respect that the experience and especially the suffering then becomes part of the character in the present as we perceive her or him.

Concerning the question of his own Jewish identity, Cohen has said “I feel I have to understand — although I know I won’t — what happened to the Jewish-European dream. If we cannot understand what in us has been destroyed then we can’t understand how other peoples suffer in similar circumstances.” Emotional Arithmetic represents both sides of this observation. The novel concerns itself both with those who suffer and with those who do not try hard enough to understand.

Callwood’s Calculations

Internationally acclaimed author and prominent activist June Callwood is one of Canada’s most treasures and versatile writers. After nearly fifty years of writing, the author, journalist and social activist has covered a wide gamut of writing genres.

“I learned that in this country, you can’t make a living writing for just one medium,” said Callwood. “And because one source of income is not enough, I had to do newspapers, radio, television, gave speeches and occasionally did a book. To be a writer, you have to be a juggler.”

Juggling her wide range of talents has been one of Callwood’s strongest attributes and has kept her active in writers’ circles.

Raised in the small town of Belle River, Ontario, Callwood began writing fiction. After winning a writing contest, she was offered a job as a reporter at the Brantford Expositor. She then joined the staff of The Globe and Mail. It was here that she met her husband Trent Frayne, a sports writer. After leaving The Globe, she turned to freelance writing and broadcasting. In the mid-1970s, she hosted the CBC program In Touch.

As another venue of writing, Callwood turned to ghostwriting autobiographies.

“I think it’s one of the easiest ways for a journalist to make a living,” she said. Ghostwriting, according to Callwood, is just a matter of helping people organize their material and trying to get the sound of their voice right.

“You can’t write better than the way the person normally writes or it would be an artificial book … you don’t have to reach for a wonderful way of expressing anything,” said Callwood.

When asked if she would ghostwrite any more books, Callwood said that she didn’t find it very challenging. “I won’t do it anymore … I’m tired of it.”

But Callwood is not known just for her ghostwriting. She is the author of 27 books to date. Love, Hate, Fear and Anger and Portrait of Canada are just part of the impressive list of her achievements. At one time, Callwood was writing a book each year.

Her literary pursuits have never overshadowed Callwood’s involvement in humanitarian work. She is a founding member of the Civil Liberties Association; a founder of Nellie’s Hostels for Women; founder and president of Jessie’s Centre for pregnant teenagers; and is a prominent contributor to Amnesty International, the Writers’ Union and PEN, which works on behalf of writers in prison in addition to countless other causes.

She not only speaks in support of the causes she works for; she puts herself out on a limbt to make a point. In the 1960s, Callwood was arrested during a demonstration outside Digger’s House, a home she founded for homeless kids.

“To me, justice is not what the courts define it as,” said Callwood. “Justice is what is right and what is fair.”

And fighting for what is fair has made Callwood a well-known activist.

Eventually her love for writing columns brought her back to The Globe and Mail in 1983.

The pressures of churning out a regular column did not phase the well-seasoned writer.

“You just have to set aside time to research it and decide what you’re going to do,” Callwood said.

She listed column ideas for a month of two ahead and never had problems finding something she felt compelled to write about.

“Some people get overwhelmed by the blank screen and have trouble deciding what to write, but my problem was selecting what to do,” she said.

She was receiving an average fifty letters a day from people asking her to write about their experiences or situations.

“Some people felt a column about what they were going through would help them individually or their causes … a good many were heartbreaking stories so the hard part was responding to this outpouring of grief and choosing which ones to write about.”

Callwood was criticized by Globe publisher A. Roy Megarry for only writing about depressing topics. But Callwood says she tried to achieve a balance.

“I wrote about noses, toes, breasts and penises,” said the writer.

Speaking about the publisher’s complaint: “I think it was partly personal because he didn’t like me,” said Callwood. “He had a different idea of newspapers … he was more interested in business and politics and thought my column was an anomaly.”

But the readers certainly didn’t. And Callwood’s appeal has not faded as she is still actively writing columns for various publications.

Evident in her choice of column topics, Callwood is concerned about social issues. It is often difficult to separate the author from the activist, said Callwood. But it’s necessary.

“The role of a journalist as advocate lies in having a wealth of information on social conditions,” she emphasized. “The reading public is entitled to a careful construction of the facts without the passion of the writer being all over the story.”

But Callwood recognizes that all writing is slanted “because it comes from your own personal experience.”

“It is the responsibility of the journalist to be informed,” she stressed. “You must meet a higher test in advocacy journalism because if you get one tiny fact wrong, the whole thing is discredited and there will be more damage done to the cause you care about and you may never recover from it.”

It is through reading, Callwood said, that writers learn to master their craft.

“Reading is important to all writers for the language. It’s like getting a musical ear and you get the sense of when a sentence sits right if you read a lot.”

“You get an ear for how the language should fall on the page.”

And Callwood definitely takes her own advice. She recently devoted an entire month to reading.

“My vocabulary improved, my proportion of the language and how it applied to my own writing,” she said. “I quit swearing so much … it was good for everything.”

“I don’t think you can be a good writer without being a heavy, heavy reader.”

Callwood attributes her attraction to reading to her childhood experience of what she refers to as being a misfit. “Being isolated made a reader and made me more sensitive,” she reflected.

“When you’re not a mainstream person, you have to protect yourself and become an observer,” she said. “I also have some experience with being unfairly marginalized on the basis of some collective judgment.”

But she says that experience had some benefits. “In some ways, it’s a positive … people who have never known despair or have never been shut out, what do they know?”

And Callwood’s deep sense of humanity is evident in her writing. Her columns often take an in-depth look at societal problems and she enjoys working on difficult topics that require more work.

“If I have a topic that is thin and it has to be spun out by being written well, I like it better than just telling a story in narrative form,” said Callwood. “I used to deliberately pick something tough and go to the Robarts Library or Sig Sam and read and read and read.”

Still writing columns, Callwood pays close attention to her peers.

She especially admires the work of Jeffrey Simpson at the Globe. “He’s the perfect political writer for the paper … he’s superb and his research is impeccable.”

She also speaks highly of Carol Gore, a writer with The Toronto Star whom Callwood considers “probably the best of all the political columnists I know.”

Michele Landsberg is another writer Callwood “rarely misses reading” but the two feminists have clashed on the issue of censorship.

Landsberg, a supporter of tough antipornography laws, is not in agreement with Callwood’s position on the controversial topic.

“Censorship does not prevent what it’s meant to prevent: the debasement, humiliation of people, violence,” explained Callwood. “Pornography is a bad idea and you counteract bad ideas by presenting better ones and through a certain amount of peer pressure to change the general standards of behaviour.”

Callwood attributes much of the problem to a society that is “still supporting macho male behaviour and that’s responsible for much of the problem.”

Both rigid in their beliefs, Landsberg and Callwood remain on opposing sides of this issue and this has strained their relationship as colleagues.

“She to some extent personalizes it and feels I’m somebody who isn’t very admirable being opposed to censorship,” Callwood said.

Her efforts as a crusading journalist have earned her both the respect of her peers and her readers and several honours.

Callwood was named an officer of the Order of Canada, was inducted into the News Hall of Fame, received the Humanities Award of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews and countless other distinctions.

Despite her success, Callwood does not like to be seen as a mythological character. “People tend to force sainthood upon you when you reach this age,” she said. “I’m flesh and blood, and deeply flawed.”

And it is that human element that endears Callwood to her readers who follow her articles with the assurance they will find the kind of writing we’ve always found in anything bearing her name.

Daniel’s Apprenticeship

Clad in black, Daniel Richler sits in a room with purple-painted streaks on the edges of the walls. He is studying the latest script for Imprint, TVO’s hot literary talk show.

Times are different for this former rock deejay. Gone are those vinyl days when Richler spun the tunes, talking all the while about teenagers looking for a cause. He’s traded in the black leather for a suit jacket and he’s flipped the record over to the arts.

With his lifelong dream, Richler’s first novel, Kicking Tomorrow, now complete, and a new marriage, his first, two months ago, Richler’s smile has a warm savvy.

“I was inescapably indoctrinated with the idea [of writing a novel],” Richler says, hunched over a bar table at a local TVO hangout.

“I can recall when I was around 11, I actually went through a tortured period when my brother [Noah] and I were esteemed by my father to be getting an inadequate education.”

Richler’s famous dad is Canadian author Mordecai Richler, who Daniel says made the sons work on writing projects during the weekend.

“We were given 60 words,” says Richler, whose pace slows down to recall a couple, “words like ‘alacrity,’ and ‘Bohemian.’”

Those tortuous writing sessions, which Richler remembers all too well, helped the neophyte author foster his love of words.

In 1976, after Richler attempted studies at McGill University (classical flute and art history), he dropped out after two months and moved from his family’s nest on Mordecai’s decree. Papa Richler, says Daniel about his stepdad (his “real dad,” is Stanley Mann, a screenwriter who lives in Hollywood), didn’t want to see five little Mordecais running around.

“He never was the sort of father who said you’ve got to get a good job in business. He just said, ‘Do whatever you want, so long as you can support yourself.’”

Moving into a seven-room apartment off Park Avenue in the hub of Montreal’s Greek setion, Richler started life with a new job, deejaying rock tunes at CHOM.

The British-born Richler says working for radio allowed him to tune into sound, making him more conscious about the spoken word.

Former CHOM rock announcer Beverly Hills, who worked with Richler, says “Everything Daniel did was in the shape of a story.”

Richler’s love for literature started, he says, when he picked up The Catcher In The Rye, and was overcome with giggles when Holden Caulifield farted in church. Now, he has a habit of taking words he reads and using them in conversation.

Leslie Allen, then assistant to CFNY’s Program Director, Dave Marsden, recalls: “When he was telling a story and forgot something, Daniel loved saying, ‘A-terrible-horrible-ugly-baby.’”

This teaser, Richler says, while he cracks a smile, was from an Edward Gorey poem, “Beastly Baby,” about a baby “so horrible he was left alone at a picnic.”

The Daniel style — a studded black leather jacket worn on all occasions padded with his quirky-coated lines — later became the perfect hit at CityTV.

John Martin, the person who hired Richler for CityTV in 1984, says, “He [Daniel] is rock ’n’ roll. He’s of it. He’s controversial and he deals with issues.”

That’s what Kicking Tomorrow does. His book focuses on the issue of growing up in Montreal during the seventies, and looks at sex, drugs and good old rock ’n’ roll in a non-judgmental way.

He says his goal is to get closed-minded adults to realize how exciting and true adolescence is.

Peering into his cold glass of Blue, Richler adds, “Really, what I wanted to do was to write a book that would convey the physical experience of being an adolescent. I wanted the reading of it to be as rich and psychedelic, as pained as … adolescence itself.”

Turning the pages in this softback published by McClelland and Steward and scheduled for release April 15, you read about Robbie Bookbinder, a passionate heavy metal headbanger who, as Richler says, “doesn’t know what to be passionate about and he’s looking for … something to hook his passions onto.”

What happens is Robbie falls in love with a self-destructive femme-fatale, Ivy Mills, who rewards his passions with an “absolute stiff arm.” He doesn’t want to deal with emotion at all.

“Do you sometimes feel like you’re the
only person in the world?” Ivy asked
him. Well, him in a way. “How do you
know you exist at all? What does it
feel like to think? At AA they tell
you to look to a Force, to help you
contact reality again. Reality? I’m
addicted to it, but I’m trying to kick
tomorrow all the time.”

As Richler says, “He finds it safer to have all the nerve endings turned up … not to feel at all.”

Meanwhile Richler’s other character in this love-triangle arrangement is Rosie, sweet and open.

“But, he [Robbie] can’t afford any feeling and I think a lot of people carry that through their lives,” he said.

In writing Kicking Tomorrow, Richler wanted to do three things: teach himself to write; exorcize certain spirits within himself; and write about the experiences of young people growing up.

Sipping on his Blue with his long fingers touching the glass, Richler adds, “After I left The Journal [where he hosted the Friday night arts show] it really took me a year to finish writing the book.”

For the new novelist who says he’s somewhere between 30 and death, but whom Canada’s Who’s Who lists as 34, writing the book was a form of exorcism.

“I made … a connection in my mind that writing would clean things up for me. I really do think in the end that after writing a book, I had sorted out some ideals and values.”

Richler recently tied the knot with his sweetheart of four years, Jill Offman, who’s an arts producer for his competition’s network — the CBC’s The Journal.

In addition to his duties as host of Imprint, Richler is also Head of Arts Programming at TVO; he admits he may have “bit off more than he can chew” when he took the position. Seven programs at TVO, producer of a sci-fi show, Prisoners of Gravity, and host for Imprint is a lot for anyone.

But Richler, wearing a warm smile with his blue eyes hinting at a lack of sleep, doesn’t seem to mind.

I wanted experience in management, and I felt that it would be a maturing thing for me to do — to find out how it [arts management] works.”

Sitting in front of his computer screen in the Tranamerica Building on a balmy early March afternoon, Richler continues correcting a script for Imprint.

Now that he finished Kicking Tomorrow, Richler says he is ready to write again. As he says of writing his first novel, “I could not escape the idea. To write a book would be the most demanding thing I could do and like Mount Everest, there it is. It has to be climbed.”

Two Girls Fat and Thin probes cycles of abuse

Two Girls Fat and Thin

By Mary Gaitskill

Poseidon Press

The title of Mary Gaitskill’s novel, Two Girls Fat and Thin, is apt in several ways. Most obviously, the novel begins with the events leading up to the meeting of two women, one of whom has been a devotee of a writer who started a cult of extreme right-wing individualism, the other of whom is a freelance journalist writing a feature on the writer, now dead, an on the current status of the cult. The novel is about these two women, and is told from their points of view. Though one woman is represented by first and the other by third person narration, the latter only contains that character’s viewpoint.

The title’s reference to the characters as girls is appropriate, because a great deal of the novel is taken up by retrospective accounts of each woman’s childhood and adolescence. As they reveal to each other at their first meeting, they were both sexually abused children — Justine having been molested several times at age five by a friend of the family, and Dorothy having been forced into an incestuous affair with her father at the age of fourteen. These abuses actually take up little of the narrative, which is focused more on showing the acts as they start or perpetuate continuing and spreading cycles of violence.

Justine’s experience echoes throughout a childhood full of sadistic behaviour towards other girls coupled with masochistic surrender to teenage tough-boys. The defensive paranoia of Dorothy’s father and the meek compliance of her mother escalate throughout Dorothy’s childhood so that when the incest starts occurring it is the extension of a situation that was always inherently violent. This is not to say that the debasing attitudes the girls take towards their bodies, perceived as estranged objects capable of betraying them, stems directly and simply from the abuse they have been victims of. Justine’s fascination with fantasies of domination and submission are perpetuated by the existing social order of adolescent suburban America; the fat Dorothy is already practiced at creating fantasy worlds, based on Peter Pan and supplemented with candy, in order to escape the friendless misery of her scholastic life.

As the lives of the two women intersect, the book depicts complex and interdependent patterns of violence that are greater than the characters, who are not only trapped within but helplessly perpetuate them. The emphasis in the title on the weight of each girl is fitting for a novel in which everything from social environment and family to personal beliefs and fantasies aids the atmosphere of alienation and violence that is still centering around the women’s bodies when they meet as adults.

Even though Gaitskill tells an intense story from the point of view of her characters, her well-crafted prose is unemotional and at its most beautiful is sometimes at its most distancing. My own preference is for books that treat highly disturbing material in an unsentimental way, and I think a great deal of the power and effectiveness of the novel comes from this. However, although at times a dry humour surfaces that works well, the writing sometimes falls into a kind of flippancy which is a little jarring. For example, names in the novel are apposite to a degree that is quite funny. Justine Shade recalls de Sade, Dorothy Never refers to both Oz and Never Never Land, the writer whose books, reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s, create the cult of Definitism is Anna Granite, the town where Dorothy is repeatedly raped by her father is Painesville, Pennsylvania, and so on.

These names suggest an allegorical character that the book does not have. While a more scholarly examination of the novel might explain them in a critical context, they are hard to deal with when one is just reading it. They suggest that the characters are types, and the story is so particular and individual that this suggestion is disconcerting: this is not a didactic treatment. While the novel does contain a general premise about the nature of this kind of violence, it has a specific context, and like any good novel it does not degrade the context for the sake of the premise.

Age of comic anxiety

Pointing out that the comic is no longer just for kids seems to be a bit redundant. Most people, after all, know that these days comics often examine serious social themes in a way that is far more powerful than many other “sophisticated” art forms. They do so through their accessibility, in that an illustrated character is more likely to acquire your sympathies than say, certain actors, as well as the fact that you can suspend your disbelief more effectively when you’re reading a cartoon.

Of course, like the dog that will forever chase its own tail, many people refuse to accept the genre of what I proudly call illustrated literature. They refuse to acknowledge what fans of this form of expression have known all along: the same things that interest your average kid will interest your average adult. That’s why we grown-ups addict ourselves to computer games as much as any child, and that’s why an article reviewing graphic novels can show up proudly in a literary supplement.

The graphic novel, popularized by Frank Miller’s revolutionary and oh-so-adult look at the Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, takes many shapes these days. Ahead, we have Miller’s latest work as well as two books provided us from The Beguiling, one of the hippest comic stores in Toronto, which is currently located on Harbord and will soon be moving to 601 Markham Street.

One of the most interesting forms the graphic novel has acquired can be seen in a work put out by Fatagraphic Books entitled Love That Bunch by Aline Kominsky Crumb. While this title might suggest some sort of Brady Bunch in cartoon form, in reality “Bunch” is the main character in this novel.

alt text

The character Bunch is directly based on the author and illustrator’s life, and its realism and willingness to deal openly with various social ills are what make it most fascinating. The work spans the various stages of Bunch’s life as a girl growing up in the affluent Jewish community on Long Island, exploring her entrance into the hippy world, the sexual world, her marriage to Robert Crumb — himself a king of the comic world — and finally her attempts to come to terms with her roles as a semi-housewife and mother.

While the illustrations certainly aren’t pretty, they seem to be congruous with the way the author portrays herself in the novel: as a woman who is constantly vacillating between announcements of her incredible ugliness and obesity and her unwillingness to subject herself to any standards other than her own.

In Love That Bunch readers get a fascinating illustrated gaze at one woman’s life and her attempts to make room in her mind for both the obnoxious materialism of her Long Island community in the forties and fifties as well as the beauty of that culture. This work asks as many questions as it resolves, but it does so in a way that is as thought-provoking, entertaining and often humorous as some of the best literary works.

The next think I look at, once again from Fantagraphics Books, was a neatly titled collection entitled The Adventures Of Junior and Tragic Tales About Other Losers by Peter Bagge. Certainly the characters and the book have a similar trait—they are all failures. While the opening section dealing with Junior, a man so frightened and dogged by life that he preaches the doctrine of never leaving home, is amusing if not hilarious, the rest tries to deal with social trends and the trials of middle-age in ways that neither amuse nor impress.

alt text

The artwork in the novel is competent, but other than Junior, one gets the feeling that the characters could look like anyone or anything and not change the meaning of the book. Half as witty as it pretends to be, this work, unlike Bunch, ends up making social revelations as obvious as reasons not to drink and drive; not that they shouldn’t be said, but nobody should have to pay eighteen dollars to hear them.

On a different side of the spectrum is the more mainstream work by Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons. This is a series of four books, with the third being the most recent, and all of them called Give Me Liberty and published by Dark Horse Comics.

Good old Frank Miller isn’t quite ready to change themes. While the characters are new, the premise isn’t. Give Me Liberty is set in an America riddled with corruption and hatred. It looks at how Miller envisions the future of that fine country. The comic books all star one Martha Washington, a black youth trapped in the prison-like ghettoes that plague urban America.

alt text

Anyway, the novel traces her escape, her subsequent allegiance to PAX — the new American army — and the various attempts by the corrupt government to eradicate her. Certainly there are some cunning touches in this work and it is well conceived and enjoyable. Once one gets past the fact that nothing new is going to happen in these works, one can settle down and appreciate the combination of blood, guts, and gore that is Miller’s breadwinner.

While Give me Liberty has nothing as interesting as, say, The Joker gassing David Letterman and the entire studio audience to its death, it does have similar ironic circumstances. I love the old “on the verge of the apocalypse look what’s going to happen if we keep on fucking up so much” book and so, while the art is typical comic-book, as are the heroes and the basic premise, I still had fund reading Give Me Liberty.

All these books deal with serious issues; none of them are for kiddies and at least two of them have nudity if not actual (burn ’em for it) depictions of sexual intercourse. While the cops should probably kick in my door for suggesting you read them, I will point out that some of the greatest literature of all time has started off being censored, banned and condemned.

Hashish-made words for life

The Arabian Nights

A new translation by Husain Haddawy

W.W. Norton

The first, most striking feature of Husain Haddawy’s new translation of The Arabian Nights is its size: at a mere four-hundred-plus pages, Haddawy’s text looks like little more than a novella next to the seventeen-volume, several-thousand-page translation by Sir Richard Burton which has, since 1888, served as the standard English version.

Where did all those pages go? To explain that, a little background is needed. For this edition, Haddawy has translated an Arabic text, based on a 14th-century Syrian manuscript now in Paris, which was edited and published in an Arabic edition by Muhsin Mahdi in 1984. There are two main manuscript editions for The Nights, the Syrian and the Egyptian. This early Syrian manuscript in Paris is one of four extant texts representing the Syrian tradition. The Egyptian tradition, however, has many extant texts. These, according to Haddawy, date no earlier than the 17th century and are generally much later than that.

It was from just such a late, Egyptian manuscript that Burton made his translation. The Bulaq edition, as it is known, was printed in Cairo in 1835 and represents the work of hundreds of years of copyists’ and scholars’ additions and emendations. Taking the number “one thousand and one” literally, though it was certainly originally intended to denote endlessness or infinity, these writers added stories of their own, as well as stories from various other mythologies and oral traditions, to bring the collection up to the famed number.

One such addition, Haddawy says, is the story of Sinbad the Sailor. A very old story, it was nonetheless not part of the original Nights. To speak of an “original” may seem rather questionable (and so it is), taking into consideration the Nights’ origins in an oral tradition, but what Haddawy is referring to is a hypothetical prototype of the Nights, one re-constructed by comparison of the earliest works in both traditions.

Previous to this edition, the only other Western translation which relied on the early Syrian manuscript was written in French by Antonine Galland in the early 18th century. It is this translation that first introduced The Nights to a European audience. Galland, however, also drew on other oral and manuscript sources, and it may be that he wrote the famous story of Aladdin and the magic lamp himself. Thus, Haddawy’s new translation provides English readers with a chance to experience this ancient cycle of stories in a form much close to its original written, and perhaps oral, form than ever before.

What is immediately apparent from this new translation is how The Arabian Nights (or Thousand and One Nights) captivated generations of audiences in the East and those first European orientalists who “discovered” the Nights for the West.

The overlying narrative is the same; Shahrazad, the Vizier’s daughter, each night tells a take to King Shahrayer, her husband, and leaves him so interested in what will happen next that he cannot bring himself to have her killed (why he would desire this is another story). By dint of her clever storytelling, she manages to stay alive and ultimately cures her husband of his misogyny.

A measure of her success is that the stories are still hard to put down. The initial accounts are quite short, each bringing forth such clever and striking images that one can’t imagine how the next will top it—and yet they consistently do. Typically, someone is telling a story, and in turn a character within that story tells a story, in which another character has a story to tell and so on. As wild as these tales get, they almost never seem arbitrary or pointless. When there is not an obvious moral at work (e.g. the folly of curiosity, the merit of bravery) a bizarre logic seems to be behind these flights of fancy. The stories, and the levels of narration, gradually become more convoluted and rich as The Nights progresses.

There is, as Haddawy points out, a unique marriage between full-blown fantasy and concrete detail in The Nights. On the fifty-first night, for instance, in a tale which Haddawy designates “The Tale of the Envious and Envied,” the daughter of a king does battle with a demon. The Princess, skilled in sorcery, and the demon go through a number of metamorphoses, battling as different animals and substances, until she suffers a fatal wound. Before dying, she explains the battle to her father and a startled onlooker, making a brief reference to the laws that govern magical battles with demons. And that’s it. She dies, and we hear no more of these arcane laws, so briefly introduced. It is as if someone had turned on a light in a room crowded with treasure, quickly turned it off again, then took you away to a different room. This is the overwhelming experience of The Nights: its plenitude, the infinite treasure house of the imagination which is illuminates in brief, surprising flashes; the rent it makes in time through the endless interpolation of new stories, worlds, lives.

This is certainly what the British literary critic W.E. Henley had in mind when he said “He that has the book of the Thousand Nights and a Night has hashish-made words for life.” But this plenitude has often been, to some extent, attributed to the sheer size of the work’s European manifestations. “At home I have the seventeen volumes of Burton’s version,” wrote Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges. “I know I’ll never read all of them, but I know that there the nights are waiting for me.” Well, Haddawy’s version needn’t take more than three or four nights’ reading, but it is no less “eternal” (to borrow an adjective from Borges) than its enormous Victorian namesake.

Haddawy’s English is also far more accessible than Burton’s. Burton’s convoluted Victorian prose can tend to make the stories dry or even confusing. It also seems likely that Haddawy’s uncluttered, modern style better approximates for us the experience of The Nights as it would have been for early readers and listeners. It is important to remember that this was a very popular and widely known cycle of stories about, primarily, magic, sex and death.

The Nights is also, as the overlying story suggests, pervasively misogynist and, as it happens, quite racist — aspects overlooked or perhaps indulged in by earlier audiences, but bound to be an impediment to many readers today. Haddawy makes no note of these elements in his introduction, unfortunately, and no attempt in his translation to hide them, thankfully.

In all, Haddawy’s translation is an important work and a fine place to begin one’s introduction to The Nights. But despite his belief that Burton’s translation is no more than a “Victorian relic” and Galland’s now lies “buried in the archives of literary history,” this most recent translation is not about to erase all that has come before it. Burton also believed he was writing a definitive translation that would preclude all others. However, Sinbad and Aladdin are not about to vanish in a puff of smoke simply because some scholar has declared them unauthentic.

The influence of The Arabian Nights, including its doubtful or apocryphal tales, can be traced throughout Western literature (John Barth’s latest book, in fact, is titled The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor). Whenever a writer makes use of an interpolated, multilayered narrative structure, The Nights is the archetype to which that work is compared. Haddawy’s new, more accessible translation will not only facilitate such comparisons but also introduce a whole new generation to this unjustly neglected Syrian text.