Monday, July 20, 2009

Gone Sailing....

There won't be a lot of activity around these parts for most of the summer. Not that there has been much of late anyway. But this will make it official. When not in the office these days I'm ministering to the above, a 1973 Bayfield 23 we purchased a week and a half ago for $2500. I've loved these boats since I was twelve, and never thought I'd have a chance to own one. But the Peripatetic was donated to the boat club where I take lessons, and they had no use for her: so I put in an offer and it was accepted.

She's a solid boat, a picturesque sloop in need of a bit of love and elbow grease. We're giving her plenty of both. Took her across Lake St. Clair last Thursday with my father, and spent Friday and Saturday cruising the Thames. Sunday we took her out for the first time on our own, and managed, a few harrowing moments aside, to sail her for several hours before anchoring for a late afternoon swim. A weekend which almost made facing this office on a summery Monday morning bearable. Almost. A few more weekends like it -- and a few weekdays besides -- and I just might be able to look on the approaching fall season with something other than exhaustion.

There's actually plenty on tap for Fall, with both Biblioasis and CNQ: a lot to be excited about. A great Fall list, events, a new editor at CNQ, a couple of special chapbooks, and more besides. But it's all news that will keep. Let this serve as a placeholder for a few weeks. We'll be back soon enough.

Enjoy the rest of summer. And when the wind is blowing wish us well: with any luck we'll be, as the name of the boat suggest, a-wandering.

2009 Metcalf-Rooke Award

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Globe & Mail: The Last Great Pan-European Novel

by Chris Scott

A fascinating family saga, Kahn & Engelmann chronicles five generations of Jewish life. Beginning in 1880 near Lake Balaton, Hungary, the narrative moves episodically from turn-of-the-century Vienna through the 20th century's convulsions, culminating in the Holocaust, the foundation of Israel and the battles for the survival of the Jewish state.

Born in Vienna in 1921, Hans Eichner fled to England in 1939, the year after Hitler's Anschluss incorporated Austria into the Reich. After completing a doctorate on Goethe and Thomas Mann at London University, Eichner taught at Queen's University, Kingston, then chaired the University of Toronto's German department. He lives in Rockwood, Ont.

Kahn & Engelmann's narrator, Peter Engelmann (also born in Vienna in 1921), becomes “an Assistant Professor [of German] at King's University in Queenstown on the North Shore of Lake Ontario.” However, Kahn & Engelmann is more than an autobiographical novel.

A brief afterword discloses that Eichner's attempt to write a documentary about “the Viennese Jews who were driven out of the country or murdered after the Anschluss” failed because the form didn't suit his commemorative purpose. “Finally a novel emerged, in which there is little that didn't actually happen, but also little that happened as it is reported here.”

Peter Engelmann's meditation on family photographs and letters revives the past – even some things best forgotten. Several chapters record the struggle for control of the dressmakers Kahn & Engelmann between Peter's father, Sándor, and his brother-in-law, Jenö Kahn, which results in the former's suicide.

Kahn & Engelmann recreates a long-lost way of life. But it also revives a vanished pan-European sensibility. Beautifully written, it may be the last great European novel, a middle-European hybrid of Remembrance of Things Past and Buddenbrooks.

In a novel woven from time and memory, the narrator can cite Tristram Shandy on the problems of a sequential narrative. Franz Kafka haunts him, as does Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, who in 1909 predicted that gloves would be made out of human skin in Europe.

Peter escapes the Nazis when a business associate of his uncle's procures an English visa. In Canada, he comes late to survivor's guilt, which is stirred by a remark of his shiksa wife, Mary, as they are kept waiting in a doctor's office. When Peter observes that he is more punctual, Mary responds that the doctor saves lives. When a colleague asks if he is teaching “the German alphabet,” Peter is at a loss. “You know,” his colleague replies, “the Greek alphabet: alpha, beta, gamma, delta; the Hebrew alphabet: aleph, beth, gimel, daleth; the Latin alphabet: a, b, c, d; the German alphabet: Auschwitz, Belsen, Chelmno, Dachau.”

“While the machinery of murder was put into action in Chelmno,” Peter laments, “I had learned Latin and read Catullus. While the deportation trains ran to Belsen and Treblinka, I had been in bed with a girlfriend. While the chimneys flamed in Auschwitz, I had written poetry.”

Must he “celebrate the literature of the murderers” with his students? He decides to become a veterinarian and emigrates to Israel, where, as a medical corpsman, he will save lives.

The question of theodicy is at the heart of Kahn & Engelmann. How can a good God permit evil? In the novel's concluding scene, set in the autumn of 1942, a Polish rabbi finds an abandoned railway car full of dead Jews. After bribing local farmers to bury the corpses, he hears a sound from the car. “God was cowering in a corner of the car and crying. The rabbi refused to comfort him.”

Yet there is much humour in Kahn & Engelmann; witness the story of Samuel Brodski, who emigrated from his shtetl to London where he worked in his brother's Whitechapel laundry. Splurging his first week's pay at a kosher restaurant, Brodski is surprised when the Chinese waiter explains the menu in fluent Yiddish. Paying his bill, Brodski asks the proprietor why the waiter speaks such good Yiddish. “Hush,” cautions the proprietor: “Don't speak so loudly. He thinks he's learning English.”

Of Vienna, Peter Engelmann asks: “Who still knows to what extent back then it was a Jewish city, with Sigmund Freud and Theodor Herzl, with Mahler and Sonnenthal, with Schnitzler and Beer-Hoffmann, with Victor Adler and Karl Kraus?” Later in his narrative, Peter remarks, “I lost all faith in Sigmund Freud once it occurred to me that he is always talking about fathers and mothers ... for every boy from a good family who wanted to sleep with his mother, there were at least ten thousand who wanted a more intimate relationship with a housemaid.”

Memory is the enemy of death, and Kahn & Engelmann is an elegant memorial. If philosopher Theodor Adorno ruled that turning the Holocaust into art is “not only immoral but perhaps even impossible,” Hans Eichner has demonstrated it is not only possible and moral but also necessary.

Novelist Chris Scott has taught English to the children of Holocaust survivors.

Monday, July 06, 2009

More Love for Thought You Were Dead

There's more love for Terry's Thought You Were Dead. (Now in its 2nd printing!) From the Hamilton Spectator -- we missed it the first time around:

Griggs keeps the action percolating nicely and has a nifty knack with dialogue. As usual, Griggs delivers a satisfying tale. For a quirky and quaint murder mystery, go sleuthing with Chellis, the genre's newest and most unlikely hero.

And from Michale Bryson's Underground Book Club:

(Thought You Were Dead is) exceptionally clever, very funny, sharply intelligent. As many critics have been saying about Griggs for a long time now, she is someone who deserves to win major prizes in this country. Her readership deserves to grow. Everyone who enjoys vigorous prose should scrurry to the nearest big box retail outlet and harrass the teenagers at the counter for a box of Griggs asap.

Century: sui generis

Over at Beattie's Shakespherian Rag, Steven Beattie takes a look at Ray Smith's Century, the fourth title in our Renditions Reprint series, and one of my favourite novels, bar none. For those of you who won't follow the link, here's his conclusion:

If Smith’s novel has been unfairly ignored in the pantheon of important Canadian literature, it might be because of its unfamiliarity, but it might equally have to do with the pervading sadness of its vision. The novelist in the opening story finds a kind of salvation in his writing, but the father who is his doppelgänger later on comes to a much more contingent conclusion:

These little trips will help me to bear what I know is coming, but the real solace will be my imaginary garden. Surely the green of it will comfort me when the jumbo jet next disgorges me, and again I will gaze upon the running sores, the twisted limbs, the clutching brown hands, surely cool breezes from it will restore my soul when next I walk into the lazy, swirling colour, the drifting red dust, the blinding light, the hot, sweet breath of Africa.


The forlorn tentativeness of that last one-word interrogative suggests that perhaps even the imagination, which is the wellspring of all art, is insufficient to counter the corruption of modernity – an unsettling thought in a novel whose last word is “lost.”

Still, the experience of reading Century is bracing, even 23 years after it was first published. Its pervasive sense of melancholy in the face of a fallen world may even carry greater impact in our post-9/11 society. In any event, it remains sui generis: a strange, searing work by one of our finest literary practitioners.