Just back from my crash course in theatre at the premiere of Elle, the play, in Toronto. But a lot is happening. There is more. Canadian Notes & Queries, that redoubtable Canadian literary magazine that published my essay on Camus in its last issue, has just published a new essay “The Arsonist’s Revenge” on David Helwig’s little masterpiece, the novella The Stand-In. I love that book. Many of you know who David is because he has published here often, beginning with his translation of a Chekhov short story in our second issue, March, 2010. This essay came about when Ingrid Ruthig (who has also appeared in NC) asked me to contribute to a book she was editing on Helwig’s work. Then CN&Q picked up the essay ahead of book publication. (I know, complicated.)
Here’s a photo of David Helwig and a few paragraphs of the essay:
The Arsonist’s Revenge
David Helwig’s novella The Stand-In came to hand first when I was asked to write a cover comment for the book, yea, these many years ago. I read it, was entranced and enchanted by its incendiary delights. It presents a man, a wounded lover, a long-suffering husband, a bird watcher, a university professor (that most careful and restrained of professions), in extremis, who explodes decorum, wreaks revenge (mayhem and insult), and becomes utterly and gloriously himself (apotheosis). This is what art is best at, giving us the moment we all wish for but can never achieve. To somewhat embellish what I wrote at the time: The Stand-In is a comic gem, by turns mordant, witty and wise. It’s a delicious novella of friendship, marriage, infidelity, plagiarism, and sly revenge. But it’s also a fascinating meditation on irony, biography, badminton, the great Canadian painter James Wilson Morrice, also Flemish painting, mirror imagery, Ernest Thompson Seton and animal painting (especially birds and horses), and the self. David Helwig is a master of thematic weaving. His timing is impeccable. One has the impression of a ferocious intelligence at play – the effect is gorgeous, seductive, compelling and liberating.
The Stand-In isn’t a long book (I am working from the 2002 Porcupine’s Quill edition), about 80 pyrotechnic pages after you subtract the blanks and section titles, separated into three chapters. It’s a dramatic monologue, three lectures delivered extemporaneously by an unnamed retired humanities professor, a last minute replacement for the famous Denman Tarrington who has mysteriously succumbed the week before on the green-tiled floor of a hotel bathroom in New York. Our narrator has gone over the edge, abandoned circumspection and control; he has the podium, his ancient rival is dead (he and Tarrington were, for years, colleagues at the hosting institution), he will joyfully and maliciously set the record straight. Tarrington goes up in flames, demonstrated to be a plagiarist (he wrote his essays off the narrator’s ideas), a wife-beater, a compulsive and boastful seducer (the narrator’s wife ended up running away with him), and a flawed badminton player.
The governing principle of composition is digression and recursion. One amongst the digressions that keep popping up is the story of the story, or the history of two mismatched academic couples whose marriages exploded one summer, “that summer,” the one of crucial memory. Denman Tarrington (DT, aka Delirium Tremens) was married to a tall, slightly awkward woman named Madeleine; the narrator’s wife was Anne, a quick, pink-skinned woman who kept her secrets and made a smashing doubles badminton partner (Anne and the narrator would invariably trounce the Tarringtons on the court). Tarrington pilfered the narrator’s ideas and wrote them into sensational essays that secured for him an academic career far beyond the local horizons. The last summer, the summer before Tarrington left for a big job in the States, he and the narrator met in Paris. Infidelities were revealed. On his return to Canada, the narrator finds his wife away on an extended trip (that she keeps extending, never to return); questioned by Madeleine, he tells her the truth about her husband. Madeleine disappears; Anne goes off with Tarrington: and the narrator lives on in the old house by the salt marshes until retirement, when, finally he too leaves town.