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Sep 132014

DSCF0087 Leon Rooke, 2014 bwLeon Rooke. Photo by Tom King.


This brings us back again to the question of repetition, if such may be seen as a question. Take Jack. The question as pertains to Jack was Jack’s fear of repetition. In our view Jack was counted a failure as a musician because Jack refused to repeat himself. He would not play or sing a number twice — never in public, that is, and rarely in private except to a restricted few — because that meant he was without any new ideas and had become the wretched musician who went on performing the same old material over and over. Such is how we saw it, and furthermore saw the same when it came to his compositions. Here, too, he failed, because if he played out a bar or two he could never bear to repeat that bar or bars a second time, the result being that all his compositions were inadequate. We had no doubts as to why this was so.

We said to Jack, Jack, you are in love with Zulu, are you not? Yes, Jack said, I am head over heels in love with that woman. We said, Well, Jack, you have told her of this love, have you not? Jack said, Yes, I have declared my adoration in no uncertain terms. We said, Well, Jack, that was our exact expectation, that you had spoken of this love, which is to say, you have said it out loud to Zulu, but there is this also, which we expect you know, a woman certainly is not going to be content with an expression of love delivered once and never again, a person, Zulu among them, requires an updating on the love question once in a while, needs reassurance, we are saying. I know what you are saying, said Jack. We said, Jack, how long have you and Zulu been together? A few days over a year, said Jack, which has been my great  good fortune. Yes, we said, but when was it you last expressed you love for dear Zulu, whom we love also? We would wager you said ‘Zulu, I love you,’ or something similar, long, long ago, most likely in the early days of your relationship, would this not be so? Jack said, I believe I can say I expressed my adoration of this woman in the very earliest days of our relationship, probably, in fact, sometime during the first hour I found myself in her presence. We said, we would expect no less of you, Jack, the fact of the matter is that Zulu has told us she was leaning against a wall and you were leaning against her and whispering this love business in one ear and another within five minutes of your very first meeting. That rings a bell, said Jack, I recall the very building we were standing against and what time of day it was, and that it was winter and snowing and we both had on these thick coats and what hell it was, how frantic we were, I mean, to get our hands beneath those coats all the while we were kissing and not aware of any other person on this planet. Yes, we said, that corresponds exactly with our sense of the event, inasmuch as we were in a Hudson’s Bay entryway watching, asking each other who that woman was Jack was kissing, how long has that been going on, when did she come into the picture? Asking such questions as that because until that moment we had all been feeling a little sorry for you because there was no one in your life you loved and never had been, so far as we knew, when we were all of us pretty well covered on that front and recognizing how lucky we were. Yet there you were suddenly in passionate embrace of this woman we had never seen before. Behaving, that is to say, in a manner we thought shocking at the time, because this was so unlike the Jack we knew that we could not believe our eyes. Jack said, Yes, I was more than a little shocked myself, and hardly believed it myself, all those honking horns and stunned pedestrians, because almost within seconds of catching sight of each other there we were pressed against the wall and fumbling to get inside those coats. Yes, we said, that is just as we saw it, the falling snow, moreover it was freezing cold out there, one could get frostbite in a minute. Well, Jack said, I don’t remember being cold, I believe it would be fair to say that Zulu and I were totally unaware of weather, although I do recall we had these little sniffles in the days following. We said, we can’t speak of that, Jack, because it seems you and Zulu disappeared for about a month, although of course at that time we didn’t know her name was Zulu. Yes, said Jack, a month, that’s accurate. We hid away in bed that full month, hardly ever eating and seeing no one. We said, Well, that brings us to our point, Jack. Jack said, What point is that, I hope this is not going to be embarrassing. We said, It well might embarrass you, Jack, our question is, well, it really isn’t a question so much as an observation. Jack said, What is this observation? We said, It is this, Jack, we were thinking surely during that month, given all that passion, you must have expressed your love for Zulu a second, third, or fourth time, however much this does not square with your obsession with this question of repetition, if that indeed is a question. Jack said, I am going to say this only once, the truth is simply that you do not understand. We said, So explain it to us, Jack. Jack said, I am sure these expressions of love passed back and forth between us during that month, and since. Where you are making your mistake is in assuming there is only one way to say I love you whereas there are about ten thousand ways of expressing these endearments, few of which I regard as repetitious, the same applying, I would argue, to what you deride as my compositions. We said, Be that as it may, Jack, or as may may be, still you must admit that now a year and some have passed and if you are telling us that in the whole of this time, these endearments firing back and forth, you have not repeated yourself, then we simply are not going to believe it, and as for that we very much doubt Zulu would confirm this ludicrous, not to say far-fetched notion you are preaching. Jack said, Be my guest then, why don’t you go and ask her. We said, Jack, old friend, it is not our intention to intrude into your affairs in the manner you are suggesting, it is enlightening, however, to learn that in matters of love you claim infinite variation, yet in your professional life you contrarily refuse to play or sing a composition more than once, which fear of repetition explains why all your creations are imperfect, worthless, a waste of time, and that’s why, to make no bones about it, as an artist you are an abject failure. Jack said, Oh, abject, am I, a failure am I, is that so. We said, How else would you put it, to which Jack said For your information I do not need to sound out those bars on any instrument since I hear those notes perfectly well in my head, thus these passages you apparently believe mandatory are rendered unnecessary for any and all judicious ears, but you deem me an abject failure even so, am I understanding you correctly? We said, Yes, unfortunately, but yes, yes. Jack said, Well, that is nice to know, it is nice to know that my supposed best friends, esteemed colleagues in the musical world, view me so unfavourably. We said, It is our contention, Jack, sad though it be, that you have not lived up to your potential. Fine, Jack said, I suppose you are entitled to your opinion. We said, It is not only our opinion, we bet if you asked Zulu she would say the same. Jack said, You are mistaken, you do not know Zulu. We said, All right, we will go and ask her. Jack said, You do that, you are in for a big surprise, you will return with tears in your eyes, begging my forgiveness, I doubt I will be able to, at least not for a week or two, for a week or two your lives are going to be utter hell.

We said, We will see about that.

Jack said, Kindly take these beautiful strawberries to my darling, such is what I was sent out for, you scorpions will be first to know Zulu is having our baby.

—Leon Rooke

Leon Rooke has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, plays, anthologies, and “oddities,” and more than three hundred short stories. He exhibits paintings at the Fran Hill Gallery in Toronto. Rooke’s many awards include the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (for Shakespeare’s Dog, 1985), the Periodical Association of Canada Award for the English-Language Paperback Novel of the Year (for Fat Woman, 1982), a Pushcart Prize (1988), the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990), and the Canada/Australia Literary Prize in 1981, for his body of work. Also the W. O. Mitchell Literary Award, for his writing and his mentoring, and the ReLit Short Fiction Award. Rooke has taught at more than a dozen Canadian and U.S. universities. He lives in Toronto.

Check out Rooke’s earlier appearances on NC below:

Sirens & The Red Hair District: Paintings

Thou Beside Me Singing: The April Poems

Heidegger, Floss, Elfride, and the Cat: Fiction

Son of Light: Fiction

Four Paintings


Jun 042013

Leon Rooke

Leon Rooke has always been an inspiration and a muse. He has written some of the most delightful short stories I have ever read. Also those truly amazing novels Shakespeare’s Dog and A Good Baby, which, if you haven’t read them, you have to read (I have written an essay on the latter, which you can find in my book Attack of the Copula Spiders). And then, late in life, as if he hasn’t done enough damage already, he takes up painting and turns out passionate, sensual, witty canvasses that exude desire, subversion, irony, and an acute adoration and attentiveness to the feminine — unapologetic, insouciant, even scabrous. Oh, Leon! A man who follows the electric current of creativity wherever it leads. A model for us all.


DSC00857 Beale Street Memphis, 2013  (oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in.)

DSC00903The Manicurist, 2012 (oil on canvas, 30 x 20 in.)


DSC00909Beach Girls 1, 2013 (acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10 in.)


DSC00938Sirens, 2013 (oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in.)


DSC00948Brideshead Revisted, 2012  (acrylic on canvas, 60 x 36 in.)


DSC00949Red Hair District, 2013 (oil on canvas, 18 x 24 in.)


DSC00961Untitled (Holland), 2013 (oil on canvas, 12 x 16 in.)


DSC00975The Magistrate, 2013 (acrylic on canvas, 48 X 60 in.)

—Leon Rooke


Leon Rooke exhibits his paintings at the Fran Hill Gallery in Toronto. He has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, plays, anthologies, and “oddities,” and more than three hundred short stories. Rooke’s many awards include the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction (for Shakespeare’s Dog, 1985), the Periodical Association of Canada Award for the English-Language Paperback Novel of the Year (for Fat Woman, 1982), a Pushcart Prize (1988), the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990), and the Canada/Australia Literary Prize in 1981, for his body of work. Also the W. O. Mitchell Literary Award, for his writing and his mentoring, and the ReLit Short Fiction Award. Rooke has taught at more than a dozen Canadian and U.S. universities. He lives in Toronto.

The Leon Rooke NC Archive Page



Leon Rooke has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, plays, anthologies, and “oddities,” and more than three hundred short stories. He exhibits paintings at the Fran Hill Gallery in Toronto. Rooke’s many awards include the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (for Shakespeare’s Dog, 1985), the Periodical Association of Canada Award for the English-Language Paperback Novel of the Year (for Fat Woman, 1982), a Pushcart Prize (1988), the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990), and the Canada/Australia Literary Prize in 1981, for his body of work. Also the W. O. Mitchell Literary Award, for his writing and his mentoring, and the ReLit Short Fiction Award. Rooke has taught at more than a dozen Canadian and U.S. universities. He lives in Toronto.

Leon Rooke is an old and dear friend. He was in my head long before I met him because of his books, Shakespeare’s Dog in particular in those days, a novel that has stuck with me as a license and an inspiration — William Shakespeare as observed by his dog (who is telling the story), a brilliant book, a tour de force of point of view construction, an example of how literature thrives by making things strange. I put Leon in Best Canadian Stories regularly (as often as Alice Munro) over the decade I edited that anthology. I’ve reviewed his books at least a half-dozen times. I wrote an essay about his (also brilliant, eerie, and wonderful) novel, A Good Baby, which you can find in my book of essays, Attack of the Copula Spiders. Rooke was born in North Carolina but lives in Toronto. He has an actor’s voice and presence and is an amazing performer of his own work. He’s also a painter — we have been lucky enough to publish images of four of his paintings on NC. —dg


Repetition: Fiction

Sirens & The Red Hair District: Paintings

Thou Beside Me Singing: The April Poems

Heidegger, Floss, Elfride, and the Cat: Fiction

Son of Light: Fiction

Four Paintings




Dec 122012

These are a scatter of The April Poems, not many, and Leon Rooke has a whole book of them coming out in, well, April, with The Porcupine’s Quill. April is the eponymous heroine of this book, these poems, the words of which Leon channels with oracular aplomb.

April always wrote in a good clear hand:
Grass is first to hold the snow.
Blue lilac on my window did grow.
The girls drove me crazy today,
So did so and so.

April has three daughters who drove her crazy and still do, her past is dubious and fraught, but former admirers dog her with passion.

next time you’re in trouble
breathe deeply and I’ll be on your bumper
like a hurricane.

Rooke writes with a mix of the vernacular, the colloquial, and the intimate informal, salted with speech rhythms from his North Carolina roots and an aphoristic flair that makes every line a surprise and a delight right up to the point, the quintessential Rooke moment, when the words become other than what they seem and he reaches for some extraordinary truthful mystery.

Dear Tate: It is a lie that beautiful words have disappeared. I have myself a trunkful
in the attic, and thousands more buried underground. April has a stash in small jars
in the pantry, falsely labeled Spices. The girls hide theirs in nine teacups in the three
doll houses, No Admittance To Anyone, Many fine words, luminous phrases, died
on the battlefield. Pirates stole many. Coiled serpents, oiled evangelists. The Pentagon
has ten thousand, no food, no water, locked up in distant prisons. In some cities
ebullient words thrive – Moose Jaw, Sioux City – living on chocolate eclairs, butternut
bread, turnips. They are home before dark. They dislike fanfare.

The cover image is from one of Rooke’s own paintings, a sampling of which you can find on the NC Art page.




39.  April and the Bad Bees

A woman in the laundromat said to April, The bees are truly nasty this year.
April was quite at a loss in what manner to reply, then noticing the speaker
was addressing another woman to her rear, though only because this other woman
replied to the first, Yes, I have never seen them so bad as this year. I do not believe
these are our standard-type bees.  No, these are mating bees, said the first, both
women then settling heavy glances on  April and her triplet daughters occupying
a three-seater pram.  April inserted another quarter in the drier. The women sat in
green plastic chairs, talking away about the nasty copulating practice of these
repugnant bees, being quite explicit, even vulgar, even pornographic, was April’s
thought, not liking either the glances coming her way, as though she personally
was to blame.  They swarm a person, this one woman said, they hold her down
until all have had a go at her, and then they swarm away and do the same
to someone else and no one says a word. Yes, the other said, it is even worse
at my house. They tie us to the beds, they sup on our toes, they regard us as slaves,
even the mites have noticed. Whereupon the women fell silent for some few moments,
content to watch clothes swirling in the driers. April’s triplets whimpered.
Then the one woman said, What I think is that this queen bee business
is a lot of rubbish. No queen in her right mind would permit such appalling
behavior.  You think it is a king, then? asked the second.  Why, of course,
came the rejoinder, some nasty despot king, have you not known them by the
thousands?  The two women at this point rutting a final malevolent glance
upon April, then lifting their wings and flying off into abysmal night.


40.  April’s Clunker Car

conked out on a high rise
not that far from Indian Country,
where she knew people. A tow-truck guy,
there in an instant, said he’d noticed her  condition
round about the Tonawanda River
up by Singalong, the best part of three days ago.
April in the cab beside him, he confessed
he’d been on her tail pretty much the whole of her life.
I ought to have married you and not that other party,
he said, not to claim I could have done any better
at the time and not that there’d  been any chance
of getting out of the thing
without losing my kids.
They are doing okay, he said,
about the same as yours.
Nice to see you holding up so well.
Yup, well, here you go, he said,
pulling into a hustling hub,
next time you’re in trouble
breathe deeply and I’ll be on your bumper
like a hurricane.


41.  On the Ropes

Love needs new shoes
but is out of work.
Last night love was arrested,
Drunk, Your Honour,
leaning against a lamppost.
Did she resist your advances?
Yes, she did, now you mention it,
plus she spat on my boots,
vile language, too.
Take her to an alley, the judge said,
beat her to a pulp.

Love staggered away blind
hot wires barbed in her breast
some bones broken
and now naked of foot
in fact naked head to toe
bleeding rather a lot.
Not that anyone much looked:
pretty autumnal day
old bruised ugly broad
bent like that.


42.  April’s Deep Remorse

has as cause three grown-up daughters
who last night received a lifetime ban
from the Epicure on Queen Street.
They claim innocence: we were meek ravens
with barely a chirp. It was that theatre bunch
settling old scores, flit and flame
and hands up the dress. Troubled Gertrude,
hemlock ear, Cassandra’s bitter tongue:
your mistresses do nothing but eat ice cream
all day! You  would not cross the room
to spit if my very heart was on fire!
Your Master splits His own tongue!
His flaws are greater than the sum of yours!
Seven police cars racked the chains on twelve.
Lady, didn’t I just arrest you? The Epicure
is the latest haunt hobbling April’s troupe.
Not even the Brunswick House
will have them.  We can’t go anywhere.
Devout Muslim, Devine Bastards,
kicked us out. Ratsuck Tim Horton’s too


43.  April Affirms She Married Well

I was his pearl of a girl
his twenty-piece orchestra
with perfect legs
his long hedge with naughty blooms
lithesome gypsy curse
spritely gin fizz
his bright sun
…….every pane


44. Thou Beside Me Singing

April’s friend, Tate, wanted to know
where went the lofty rhymes, the shimmering radiance
in a poem’s long ago.  He liked those words cadenced light as a bird,
say one of those that can hold still against raging wind, stop and start
words from an eloquent brain, a humming bird, April thought he meant.
Fancy syllables espaliered onto a page
like a peach tree clutching a drain? Yeah, something like that,
Tate said, but making sense, you know, ordinary sense, like
I don’t have to get out my Ph.D.  Pretty words, like you’re the critic,
where did they go?
……April always wrote in a good clear hand:
……Grass is first to hold the snow.
……Blue lilac on my window did grow.
……The girls drove me crazy today,
……So did so and so.
April said to Tate, I keep my best words in a drawstring bag around my neck.
Those were the days.
She didn’t say when.
She was ever at us, this intelligent woman poking the hornets’ nest.
Don’t wake the triplets. They’ll never get back to sleep.
Those girls sleep too much.
If you had to chase them you wouldn’t think so.
I wore myself out chasing you.
Liar, liar, what’s on fire.
Tate is waiting. Tate, the dolt.
Dear Tate: It is a lie that beautiful words have disappeared. I have myself a trunkful
in the attic, and thousands more buried underground. April has a stash in small jars
in the pantry, falsely labeled Spices. The girls hide theirs in nine teacups in the three
doll houses, No Admittance To Anyone,   Many fine words, luminous phrases, died
on the battlefield. Pirates stole many. Coiled serpents, oiled evangelists. The Pentagon
has ten thousand, no food, no water, locked up in distant prisons. In some cities
ebullient words thrive – Moose Jaw, Sioux City – living on chocolate eclairs, butternut

bread, turnips. They are home before dark. They dislike fanfare.

—Leon Rooke


Leon Rooke has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, plays, anthologies, and “oddities,” and more than three hundred short stories. Rooke’s many awards include the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (for Shakespeare’s Dog, 1985), the Periodical Association of Canada Award for the English-Language Paperback Novel of the Year (for Fat Woman, 1982), a Pushcart Prize (1988), the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990), and the Canada/Australia Literary Prize in 1981, for his body of work. Also the W. O. Mitchell Literary Award, for his writing and his mentoring, and the ReLit Short Fiction Award. Rooke has taught at more than a dozen Canadian and U.S. universities. He lives in Toronto.


Oct 182012


Exile Editions in Toronto has just published Leon Rooke’s new story collection Wide World in Celebration and Sorrow. Numéro Cinq was lucky enough to publish one of the stories from the book earlier this year — “Heidegger, Floss, Elfride, and the Cat”. Here’s what I wrote about the story:

Leon Rooke is an old and dear friend. He was in my head long before I met him because of his books, Shakespeare’s Dog in particular in those days, a novel that has stuck with me as a license and an inspiration — William Shakespeare as observed by his dog (who is telling the story), a brilliant book, a tour de force of point of view construction, an example of how literature thrives by making things strange. I put Leon in Best Canadian Stories regularly (as often as Alice Munro) over the decade I edited that anthology. I’ve reviewed his books at least a half-dozen times. I wrote an essay about his (also brilliant, eerie, and wonderful) novel, A Good Baby, which you can find in my book of essays, Attack of the Copula Spiders. Rooke was born in North Carolina but lives in Toronto. He has an actor’s voice and presence and is an amazing performer of his own work. He’s also a painter — we have been lucky enough to publish images of four of his paintings on NC.

In “Heidegger, Floss, Elfride, and the Cat” Leon Rooke gives us Heidegger with his pants down (metaphorically), straining to compose the impenetrable prose of Being and Time while shuttling to and from his lover’s house and fending off the jealous and passive-aggressive intrusions of his long-suffering wife (I have inserted photographs of the real Heidegger and Elfride below).  All this is relayed through someone named Floss, another one of those odd point of view inventions Rooke is so good at. In this case, Floss might be a philosophy student reading Being and Time in a library or he might be Heidegger, or rather, I think, Heidegger’s Being (which we might have called his Soul in the old days). Heidegger, of course, can’t know Floss, but Floss knows everything about Heidegger. And when the story is done, Floss trundles home to his wife and kids (being Heidegger’s Being is like a job). And, of course, it’s very late and I might have got this wrong.


May 072012

I spent the summer of 1968 in Freiburg. Martin Heidegger was still alive, living in a retreat in the Black Forest in an odor of disrepute on account of his Nazi sympathies during the war. I had a fantasy that I would meet him hiking in the woods. I never met him. I did meet Friedrich Von Hayek, the great economist, but he was easy; he had an office at the university and I walked in one day with a mutual acquaintance and shook his hand. My brush with history, my personal relationship with the god of Paul Ryan and the austerity-cats of the  Republican right.

Heidegger is a particularly difficult philosopher to read because he thought he was inventing a new language to talk about the thing he couldn’t talk about. You can’t tell sometimes if he is being mysteriously impenetrable or just impenetrable as in opaque. He had a vast nostalgia for Being which he thought of as something we couldn’t access by perception or thought. This vast nostalgia seems sometimes to have been more felt than reasoned; he was of that generation who still mourned the passing of the Greek gods. He also slept around a lot and had a more or less open marriage with his wife, Elfride. Somehow his nostalgia for a thing you can’t reach and his many love affairs seem comically and humanly self-contradictory. He is ripe for literature.

Enter Leon Rooke.

Leon Rooke is an old and dear friend. He was in my head long before I met him because of his books, Shakespeare’s Dog in particular in those days, a novel that has stuck with me as a license and an inspiration — William Shakespeare as observed by his dog (who is telling the story), a brilliant book, a tour de force of point of view construction, an example of how literature thrives by making things strange. I put Leon in Best Canadian Stories regularly (as often as Alice Munro) over the decade I edited that anthology. I’ve reviewed his books at least a half-dozen times. I wrote an essay about his (also brilliant, eerie, and wonderful) novel, A Good Baby, which you can find in my book of essays, Attack of the Copula Spiders. Rooke was born in North Carolina but lives in Toronto. He has an actor’s voice and presence and is an amazing performer of his own work. He’s also a painter — we have been lucky enough to publish images of four of his paintings on NC.

In “Heidegger, Floss, Elfride, and the Cat” Leon Rooke gives us Heidegger with his pants down (metaphorically), straining to compose the impenetrable prose of Being and Time while shuttling to and from his lover’s house and fending off the jealous and passive-aggressive intrusions of his long-suffering wife (I have inserted photographs of the real Heidegger and Elfride below).  All this is relayed through someone named Floss, another one of those odd point of view inventions Rooke is so good at. In this case, Floss might be a philosophy student reading Being and Time in a library or he might be Heidegger, or rather, I think, Heidegger’s Being (which we might have called his Soul in the old days). Heidegger, of course, can’t know Floss, but Floss knows everything about Heidegger. And when the story is done, Floss trundles home to his wife and kids (being Heidegger’s Being is like a job). And, of course, it’s very late and I might have got this wrong.

As far as I know, no animals were harmed during the composition of this story (despite what happens to the poor cat).





Lights that flickered, curtain at a certain pitch in the summoning, the rendezvous with Frau Blochmann now concluded, Heidegger clamps his trouser legs and bicycles home.

Floss withholds opinion on the Master’s affair with the eminent colleague, which he knows will continue another few decades. What he wonders is what Elfride will say when the philosopher king comes through the door. That Jewish bitch again? Or will she say nothing, having just dispatched her doctor friend through that very door. This love business is a bit tiring, is Floss’s thought. Get back to work, he tells Heidegger. Not that such is required. After swallowing a bit of Elfride’s tasty stew Heidegger will be at his desk. Being and Time, thinks Floss, page 355. Quote, Resoluteness, by its ontological essence, is always the resoluteness of some factical Dasein at a particular time.

Floss, in his cramped library carrel, has no argument with that. Well and good. Floss and resoluteness and Heidegger, Floss believes, are one and the same.

They are together, he and the Freiburg sage, working the deep trench.

Heidegger now writes, quote, The essence of Dasein as an entity is its existence.

Without entity, no essence: well and good, remarks Floss to himself. Particles afloat in space, what purpose they?

Quote, The existential indefiniteness of resoluteness never makes itself definite except in a resolution. Page 346.

Here Floss wants to say Hold the phone. Floss wants to put his foot down.

Floss’s mind is rapidly scribbling notes to himself. These notes are scratching like a dog inside Floss’s brain. Hold the phone is but one of the dog’s bones.

Floss’s index finger is rapidly scanning the lines, speed-reading Heidegger as the master composes. Are not he and Heidegger that close?  Are they not twinned with respect to Being and Time? Are they not brothers?

Floss can quote aloud, at any time, Floss can, any one of Heidegger’s current or future thoughts. The text is spread open on the desk for company only.

Photographic. That’s what Floss’s mind is.

Never mind that he has scribbled into his notebook the erroneous page reference. His hand did. Floss’s mind knows the difference.

Not 346. 355. Floss has jumped ahead. He always knows where Heidegger is going; often he arrives at the destination while the King of Thought is still clearing his throat.

Quote, Only by authentically Being-their-Selves in resoluteness can people authentically be with one another.

Ah! Floss thinks. Let’s not get too, you know, personal. Like.

In Floss’s view this statement is another Hold the phone. This is Heidegger fighting a headwind.

That someone has just this moment walked into Heidegger’s study is radiantly clear to Floss. Being with one another is an untypical Heidegger sentiment. The Master has been thwarted in his goals. Ergo, the line’s impurity.

Who is the culprit this time?

Excited, Floss thumps his knees.

Elfride, of course.

This is Heidegger being influenced by Elfride. This is the wife calling the tune. It is Elfride saying, If you are going to be with me, then be…with me.

Floss can see Elfride hovering over the great man’s shoulders. He can see her whisking dandruff from the great man’s shoulder with a tough whisk broom.

—Don’t mind me, Elfride is saying.

Heidegger doesn’t like any of this. Naturally, he doesn’t. Her very presence fills him with distaste. She has destroyed his flow of pure thought. Be with one another? How has that monstrous phrasing got onto his page?

Four a.m.  Heidegger never sleeps, that explains him. But must Elfride do her dusting at this hour?

Floss thinks not. Floss thinks Elfride must have something up her sleeve.

—Dearest soul, the great man says — can’t you go away? Can’t you leave the room and quietly close the door?

—You know what happens if I don’t dust, don’t you? Elfride says.

Heidegger doesn’t know what happens if Elfride doesn’t dust. He is pretty certain Elfride means to tell him.

—Can’t you make a guess. Oh, go ahead. Go out on a limb.

Heidegger is thinking he has always been out on that limb. He was out there first on the limb with the Jesuits when he was a boy, then with Husserl, the so-called father of phenomenology; he was out on the limb with Elfride, then with Hannah, then with Elfride and Hannah jointly. And don’t forget colleague Blochmann. Occasionally the Stray Other. Now he is back on the limb with Elfride. Elfride is dusting the limb.

—I do not intend to engage in your theatrics, dearest soul, he says.  I intend to sit here and work on this passage on page 355 until I get it right.

—It’s right, dear one, Elfride says. I’m here to tell you it is already right.  You get it any righter, then I won’t know what to do with myself.

Floss, hearing this exchange, leans back in his tight carrel chair. He crosses his arms over his chest. He closes his eyes.

“Don’t let me interrupt you,” Floss says.

Heidegger spins his head. Elfride ignores Floss. Floss is a pest; he pops in at inconvenient times; otherwise, he is nothing to Elfride.

—Keep out of this, Floss, she says.

Heidegger sighs. These sighs are magnificent. They express his full contempt of those who would make the philosopher’s already impossible task that much more difficult.

Elfride, normally the most anchored of women, is subject to flights of fancy. Now she’s whisking her broom at vacant air. She has even given that vacancy a name: Time Being. There was a time, Floss recalls, when Elfride was more besotted with Heidegger than some now assert is the case. It is all that Hannah’s work. Months before Elfride and her future husband met Elfride had carried in her pockets notes destined for the magician of Frieburg. Don’t deny it. Yesterday I saw you looking at me. Or: Last week I blocked the doorway and without a word you swept by me. Or: I beseech you. Love me. She still retains these undelivered disintegrating missives under lock and key in a wooden chest buried beneath the floor.  They prove her love.  They prove her love existed prior to his. This makes her proud. Not even the great can be first in every regard. These notes will be published after her death. The instructions are contained in a sealed envelope affixed with her granddaughter’s name. Not in this envelope or in the locked chest is the narrative describing the gypsy fortune teller’s role in their haunted lives. Well, are not all lives haunted, Floss, who has never loved, reminds himself.The gypsy said to Elfride, On the first rainy afternoon, following your economics class, stand beneath the first blooming tree your steps venture upon. The lover meant for you will appear. Cold rain dripped, afterwards she caught a cold that endured through many weeks, and periodically through each wheeling year, this existing as nothing because love’s astonishing light penetrated the drooping boughs and stormed her heart. Heidegger, under a black umbrella, indeed appeared.  Through wet lashes he imagined he saw a dying tree where nothing had stood days before.

—You. What is your name?

—Elfride Petrie.

—Why are you standing in the rain?

—Waiting for you. I am your fate.

Heidegger believed in fate as he did in Plato, with suspicion, particularly with regard to the monumentally salient question What is truth, but he was impressed. She was also pretty, though with rain pouring over her face he would reserve opinion on that. Yet when this schoolgirl fitted her body against his, his heart which was three quarters stone fragmented and certain sounds issued from his mouth never until that moment heard by himself or by any other.  Fortunately only children on a dilapidated school bus, there to witness ancient Marburg splendours, were present, and they were too distracted to absorb any image of the historic coupling. This was because rain had become sleet, sleet had become snow, which in minutes had blanketed the lovers, flakes ascending and descending a second and third time, and then repeatedly, in abstract harmony with their movement.  Floss, who was there and could have sought the better view had he been that kind of person, was mostly concerned with Heidegger’s black umbrella which gusting wind ripped into sundry pieces, the cloth flitting hither and yon like unruly crows, if crows were ever to attempt flight in such weather.

Heidegger has put down his writing pen. He is leaning back in his chair. He is crossing his arms over his chest. He fits his tongue beneath the upper lip; he can see clearly his thick Fuhrer’s moustache. The sighting gives him strength, although he distinctly prefers his own. He is reminded that theirs is a nation-building task. The moustache renews him in the impossible goal.

He sighs anew, leaning further back. He closes his eyes.

His sighs now, however, are obviously feigned. They exist merely as an admonishment to his wife. Feigned, they express his resignation. His disappointment with married–the assailed– life. The sighs are meant to convey to Elfride that he has given up.  How can he work with a loudmouth duster in the room, chattering non-stop?

Gone from his head is that trail he was tracking re resoluteness.

But that quickly does his mind seize again upon the trail. His shoe soles hit the floor. His burden has lifted. The pen flies into his hand. Once more he is at work. He is already scribbling again.

He is scribbling, Floss thinks, quote, The resolution is precisely the disclosive projection and determination of what is factically possible at the time.

Hold the phone, Floss is thinking. The projection is termed disclosive only because the thought has just this second revealed itself to the sage. Ditto, factically.

But Heidegger is breaking his pen’s point underlining this significant line. It is imperative that the line be printed in the italic. If the line is not set in the italic then readers fifty years from now, speedreaders like that dunderhead Floss, will fly right by it. They will be blind to its pertinence, as he himself is blind to the dust, the dandruff–as he would wish to be blind to Elfride’s galling presence.

—That’s good, Martin, Elfride says.  I love that factically possible line. It makes me break out in a cold sweat.

Indeed one of them in the room is sweating, though it isn’t Elfride. Heidegger is sweating because writing a new philosophy, bringing the axe to old traditional philosophical walls — that, mein Fuhrer, is hard work. Plus, there’s the other problem: the window, the cat. How hot and stuffy this room is. If he raises the window, he will be wasting heat. Heat the Volk must not waste. Only a Jew saboteur would waste the nation’s heat. So he is stymied on that front. Yet — and now he is getting to the essence of the situation — yet if he raises the window, the simple solution sans heat, the loathsome cat which always plops itself down on the sill, will come in. Thus, he keeps the window shut. He sweats.

Architects, he thinks, truly are a repellent tribe. They can get nothing right.

Floss swings in his chair. His shoe soles strike the floor. He sees Elfride poised. Resolute Elfride is ever on the job.

—Were you saying something, darling? says Elfride. It isn’t the architects, it’s me. Don’t blame the architects for your stinginess. Blame the war. Or better yet, yes, blame me.

She parades curvaceously around the sage’s desk.

—Although of course, she says, you would be perfectly justified if you blamed the cat.  I’m with you there. I hate that cat.  That cat is the ugliest creature I, for one, have ever seen. Are you for two — if I may phrase the question so? — in thinking that cat is the most frightful creature ever to walk on four legs?

—Three, Heidegger says. If we are to speak of the cat, then let’s speak precisely. The cat has but three legitimate legs. The fourth, as you can distinctly see, is so foreshortened as to scarcely exist.

Foreshortened? says Elfride. Do you mean to say the leg in question existed that way in the womb? Perhaps in the very exchange of seed?  Oh, I think surely not foreshortened, because I clearly remember that leg was perfectly normal until you crushed it when you caught the cat coming through your window.

Heidegger lowers his head. He kneads his brow. He is thinking, I have stayed up all night for this?

He is thinking, Hannah, thank God, was not a chatterbox. Her head was on my chest whenever I spoke.

—Yes, darling, Elfride is saying. As much as I despise the creature, it is criminal what you have done to that cat. You all but pressed that cat flat. Martin, I hardly know what to say. I hardly do. I am speechless, listening to your infirmity on the subject of that cat.

Floss sees the philosopher’s eyes narrowing. He sees him looking with utter hatred at this wholesome, proud, meandering wife. Heidegger’s defence collapses. Elfride has described the scene exactly as it occurred.

—It was an accident, Floss says.

—It was purely accidental, Heidegger says.

Elfride snubs this excuse. She whisks it away with  her broom.

Floss has his attention elsewhere.  He is focusing on the sleeping cat. The cat, to his eyes, has altered itself somehow. That the cat suffers deformity is true enough. But it is no longer the bony, undernourished cat. The cat has been eating. It has found food somewhere. The cat is fat.

As for Heidegger, already he is scribbling again. Quote, When what we call “accidents” befall from the with-world and the environment, they can be-fall only from resoluteness.

Floss forsakes his study of the cat. Hold the phone, he says. Hold the phone. Hello, hello. Bravo, my friend.

But Elfride’s broom is stabbing the air.

—You could kill the cat, Elfride is saying. Yes, my lamb, you could finish the job. Then you could raise your window, if only for a moment. Surely not a great deal of our precious heat would escape if you raised your window for one mere moment. Our war resources would not be sorely depleted.  Fresh air, Martin!  Glorious health!  With the window open, even so little as a tidge, you would not be forced to wrestle there in heavy sweat. You could be comfortable. Surely your work would go better if you were comfortable. Kill the cat, my good soul. With the cat dead, your Being and Time will be concluded in nothing flat.

—Enough, Elfride. Enough!

—Shall I kill the cat for you, Martin? I would be happy to kill the atrocious cat if you tell me you believe I should, and can morally justify my performing the act. Issue the cleansing command.  Think! She is only a cat.

—She? That cat is female?

Oh master, groans Floss.

—Yes, and rather resolute, by the look of her.

Heidegger sinks low into his chair. He hoods his eyes.

—Are you done, Elfride? Dearest soul.


—Yes, done. If you are not done, Elfride, then I am leaving my desk. I am leaving my house. I will walk this night all the way to my cabin in Todtnauberg, if that is what it takes to be quit of your tongue.

Floss, at his desk gnawing a fingernail, allows himself a smile. The sage is tempting fate with this mention of the cabin, of Todtnauberg. He has stepped with both feet into Elfride’s trap.

—Todtnauberg? Elfride says. Your cabin?  But, darling, the cabin is mine. True. I gave it to you. But quit my tongue?  Oh, heavens, you can’t mean I have disturbed you. I rattle on, certainly, but only because I know how much my rattling improves your mood. If I did not rattle, you would go about eternally under your famous black cloud. You would never be able to look anyone in the eye. Your students would hardly hang on to your every word. Oh, I think it is fair to say, Martin, that without me and my tongue, and my Nazi boots, and just possibly the cat’s presence at your window, you would never get your work done. You would never write a line. Most assuredly your opus would never be completed. Fame would elude you. Not a person outside Frieburg would ever have the pleasure of hearing your name. You can admit that to yourself and to me, can you not? I’ll not hold it against you. You do not have to prove yourself to me, not ever. Certainly not the way you had to prove yourself to that schoolgirl, Hannah Arendt. And to take her to my cabin in Todtnauberg to prove it, well, my word!

—So that’s it, is it? That’s what this eternal dusting is all about. This mouth disease. So you can harp night and day on my little Hannah fling.

Little, darling?  What would poor Hannah think if I repeated to her what you have just said? Did you not write to her that she was your life?  Did she not reply that you were her every heartbeat? That your paths would haunt each other until the death?  Oh, I think so, darling. I believe those were the two sweethearts’ very words. ‘My homeland of pure joy.’ Was that not your latest encomium?

Floss applies a handkerchief to his eyes. His eyes are wet. They ever get so each time he sees Hannah and Heidegger together in the cabin at Todtnauberg. Strolling together after class under the singing trees. The decades of love to come. How thrilling it must be, Floss thinks, to possess these loves.

Still. Still, Floss altogether shares Jasper’s view when it comes to that Hannah relationship. Resolute, yes, but messy, messy. Cataclysmic love: Hannah defending him at the French de-Nazification committee hearings: scrambling to hawk his manuscripts to Columbia: through the years never one syllable from the master’s mouth as to the beloved’s own work which he read in secret and secretly believed ephemeral if not deliquescent. Her head ever lowered to his chest.

Elfride is thorough.  Not all has been said:

—Or perhaps the precipitation in your eyes has as cause your forthcoming tart Princess Margot of Saxony-Meiningen. Will your rendezvous signal this time be flashing lights or will it be your shades hanging at a certain depth, as was the case with banal Hannah? Which? Will she hand-copy your every hour’s text, as I do?

Floss is astounded. He is giddy with excitement. He has not heretofore perceived that Elfride’s capacity to see into the future matches his own. He sees her now, as one day she doubtlessly will, hands clasped in an unrecognized lap, confused by the vague sense of warfare between aching joints, an old woman of 92 awaiting death in a caretaker home. Will she see her two sons on Russian soil, prisoners of war? Has she yet seen the Delphic oracle rescuing from rubble manuscripts housed in what previously was a Messkirch bank? Hiding them in a cave?

Not at the moment, in any case. At the moment what both Elfride and Floss are seeing is the Master frantically bicycling 16 miles to Todtnauburg, flinging off his clothes, now dressed only in an absurd Tyrolean cap, Elfride, Hannah, the Princess, and scores of other women panting in pursuit, flinging off theirs. For Floss, madness promotes the vision. For Elfride, a confirmation of enduring love.

A thousand letters, cards, over the decades, informing Elfride where his Divineship is, not one suggesting who he is with. What a challenge this marital devotion, these conjugal splits. Send in your party membership, dearest soul, thinks Floss. In resoluteness is strength.

“Get back to the cat,” Floss tells Elfride. Forget Hannah. The cat, after all, has meaning; it is both a real and a symbolic cat. In light of the great man’s post-war silence on the issue of certain atrocities, personal betrayals, I could tolerate additional intimate details re his treatment of the cat.”

—Shoo, shoo, says Elfride. Stop harassing me.

Heidegger is distracted. Once more, Elfride is communicating with vacant air. But perhaps this is good. Perhaps her nasty obsession with Hannah has for the moment exhausted itself.  Elfride, he thinks, with her everlasting can of worms. Essence of spite. Why can’t my two great loves, my sprites, be friends? I must see to that, however imbecilic it may appear.

He looks at the cat, asleep on the window sill. Even curved like that, one can see the leg’s deformity. The crippled spine. The cat should be killed. It is doing that cat no favor to let it live.

He would give Elfride the order. He would say to her, Elfride, kill the cat! Do it now.

But he and she are locked in this struggle. They are irresolute. The cat, if it is to die, must die under Elfride’s own initiative. If he were to give the order, the cat would ever survive intact in his memory. Whereas, if she killed it outright, slicing its throat with a knife from the kitchen or beheading it with the hatchet on a woodblock in the back yard or merely trampling it to death, then the cat would be gone forever. It would disappear totally and entirely from his mind and from the world. Its essence would have been annihilated, its entity denied.

He thinks: what Elfride is hoping is that the weather will get extremely cold this winter — Frieburg under ice, the cat stiff as a rock in the freeze. Certainly there is not the remotest chance that she will allow the cat inside the house.

Unless she does so in punishment of me. Unless she does so out of revenge for my taking Hannah to Todtnauberg. Such a stupid impulse, despite its having led to excruciating reward.

One, it had led Hannah out of drabness. It had transformed her overnight into a bewildered passionate vehicle of sex. Wrought, her mind had unloosened, her brain cells uncoiled.

God forgive me the moments I even have wondered she wasn’t the better thinker than me.

Heidegger is close to tears.  The shame of this.

—Oh, she’s bright, Martin, Elfride says. I have never denied you her brightness. But — she snaps her fingers — she isn’t you.

Floss leans back in his chair. He removes his glasses, polishes them. Elfride’s face is flushed. Always, with that flushed face, any wild remark is apt to burst from her mouth. He wants his glasses clean, that he may see her clean, when next she speaks.

“Tip the scales, Elfride,” Floss says. “Show the great man how bright you are.”

—Martin, darling, Elfride says. She is laughing. —Look what I am doing!

Martin has been cleaning his glasses.

Floss, putting on his glasses, sees Heidegger putting on his.

As for Elfride, Elfride is at the study window. She is poking the cat with a stick. Heidegger keeps the stick there for that very purpose.  Enter a line in Being and Time, then jump up and poke the cat. Enter another, poke the cat.  Day after day, poke the perfectly stupid, ever returning cat. That is how his opus is being written: Elfride’s dusting, Eflride’s interventions — but whenever alone he has been poking the cat.

So Floss figures. Floss has figured it out. Just as he has figured out — flipping the pages, speed-reading the familiar text — the nature of the breeze. He must wipe his fingertips of glycerine, that’s how much speed he needs. He has learned the dark secrets of this book.  Floss knows precisely each line, each phrase, where Heidegger has got up, flung himself across the room, picked up his stick — tortured the cat.

But today, to Floss’s mind, there is something different about this cat.

“A moment, Elfride. Consider. In my view, that’s a pregnant cat.”

But Elfride is in action. Elfride has the stick. She is poking the cat.

-Da!(poke) Da!(poke) Da!(poke) Da!

The cat is squalling; it is meowing, hissing. Clawing the glass. It can’t get in, it can’t get out.

Heidegger, cannot, will not, look. He turns his back to this scene. He claps hands over his ears. Elfride is capable, reliable.  When the deed is done she will dispose of the corpse. He need never be appraised of the how or where. Philosophy need not concern itself with a being’s single specific fate. It has steered fathomless circles since the Greeks established the course. Well done, Greeks. Now those old walls must crumble. With certain exceptions, work to date has been rubbish in the wind. The ground is soggy, diseased, repellent: it releases a fetid odour. Original thought is now required. Already the cat’s presence, Elfride’s resoluteness, is slipping from his mind. The pen flies into his hand; it flies across the page. Quote, ‘Irresoluteness’ merely expresses that phenomenon which we have interpreted as a Being-surrendered to the way in which things have been prevalently interpreted by the “they”. Sweat pours down his cheeks. He pauses.  He wonders if he may permit himself a footnote excluding Plato, Holderlin, Nietzsche from this “they”. Probably so. Why promote their cause?

He works on. He is unaware that Elfride’s Da! Da! Da! has catapulted into shrieks. Something about the cat. Something about something inside the cat. Let her deal with the matter. The cat is a household problem. That’s what marriage is for. For wives to deal with them.

Floss isn’t fooled. He knows Heidegger’s deeper thought: This wife, this hellcat, distorts the providence of being.

“Do you wish to whack the cat, Martin.”  Elfride is whacking with each shriek.

Floss cannot sit still in his chair. His every nerve is shot. He cannot witness any more of this. He is shouting at Elfride, “Put down the stick! Filthy Hun, put down the stick!

Already she has dropped the stick. Blood has splattered on the carpet, on her lovely night-dress. Her hands are covering her face. On the sill the dying cat is wrenching its body one way and another. Gore is leaking from the torn fur. Blood pools on the window sill. A slimy wedge of kitten protrudes beneath the crooked tail.

Never mind. Soon, reaching towards sixty, Heidegger will be out on the hinterlands with young and old, digging trenches to delay the advancing enemy. Floss hurriedly assembles his books. He hitches the backpack over one arm. Rushes down the stairs. The library is exceptionally well lit. Fluorescent tubes quiver and spit. In the entire building no other individual is stirring. The universe is silent. Dawn has arrived, an ascending quilt. His own cat will be crying. His cat will be saying, Why have you not been here to let me purr in your lap? What have you been doing? His wife and children will be in tears. Where have you been? Who are you? (Dearest soul), resolute being, explain yourself.

— Leon Rooke


Leon Rooke has published more than 30 books, including novels, short story collections, plays, anthologies, and “oddities,” and more than three hundred short stories. Rooke’s many awards include the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (for Shakespeare’s Dog, 1985), the Periodical Association of Canada Award for the English-Language Paperback Novel of the Year (for Fat Woman, 1982), a Pushcart Prize (1988), the North Carolina Award for Literature (1990), and the Canada/Australia Literary Prize in 1981, for his body of work. Also the W. O. Mitchell Literary Award, for his writing and his mentoring, and the ReLit Short Fiction Award. Rooke has taught at more than a dozen Canadian and U.S. universities. He lives in Toronto.


Apr 302011

Here’s a treat, a  brand new video, from Exile Quarterly in Toronto, of dg’s old friend Leon Rooke reading one of The April Poems. Just the thing for a Saturday afternoon. In this one, the canary eats the cat. Who can resist the cat’s tail lying on the floor of the canary cage? (Check out Leon’s earlier contributions to NC—a short story and a series of paintings.)


Oct 142010

Fiction breaks barriers people assume are sacrosanct. I was watching Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street the other night, fascinated mostly by the conceit of the world of dream invading the waking world of so-called reality and vice versa. Leon Rooke has a story called “Magi Dogs” in his recent collection The Last Shot in which a real dog walks into a painting.

I had no sooner finished my new painting, White Cottage with Green Shutters, when a dog poked its nose in the door, looked me over with only the mildest interest, then without further ado trotted up the painting’s cottage path, yawned, and at once dropped down asleep by the front steps. I was glad I hadn’t given the cottage an open door or the dog likely would have walked right inside.

The story develops in sections along several armatures but eventually returns to the painting and the dog.

The dog is pacing the cottage path, she turns and looks me over as I enter the studio, I draw fresh water from the tap and place the tin can on the floor, she quickly laps up all the water, wags her tail, then trots up and scratches at the cottage door, these deep whines in her throat. With chalk I throw in a few quick lines to open a makeshift door, the dog pushes through and runs straight to the divan.

For a long time I sit on the model’s hard chair looking at the dog, thinking that if one dog arrives this can only mean others may follow, which leads me to something else I have been frequently mulling over these recent days, Anjou’s insistence that from time to time the mind must be excavated, emptied, so that it may discover a solace fundamental to its journey.

What storytellers know is that grammar has nothing to do with truth, that the throw of grammar leads into the light of the imagination. Dreams can invade reality, dogs can take up residence in paintings (and bring their friends).

As it happens, besides being a great storyteller and novelist, Leon Rooke is a painter of brash, dynamic pictures on display at the Fran Hill Gallery in Toronto. There are homages here (obvious in the title), also bits of narrative, often ironic (also signaled in the titles), exuberant colours and bold eroticism. These pictures are exciting to see and ponder against Rooke’s words, his stories and novels which trend always toward that point where the mind empties and opens itself to “a solace fundamental to its journey.”


The New Quebec, 2010
oil/canvas, 24 x 48 in.
Collection of Sybil & Morris Fine

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Sep 292010

DSCF0087 Leon Rooke, 2014 bwLeon Rooke. Photo by Tom King.

It’s a huge honour and pleasure to introduce to Numéro Cinq my old friend Leon Rooke who, all my writing life, has been an inspiration and a forerunner. This amazing story–“Son of Light”–appeared in Leon’s 2009 collection The Last Shot for which I wrote a review that ran in the Toronto Globe and Mail. There is possibly no better way of prefacing this story than to give you the review, the whole thing.

Leon Rooke is a Canadian from North Carolina with a list of books as long as your arm. He’s a national treasure, a huge and kindly promoter of younger writers, a Shakespearean reader of his own work–have I mentioned prolific? He writes out of a wagon load of traditions which include the American post-modernism of Barthelme, Coover, Gass and Brautigan and the school of southern bombast (William Faulker, Barry Hannah and Flannery O’Connor–and by “bombast” I don’t mean a negative; I mean the high-flown stentorian style of the great southern preachers, rhythmic, hammering, mellifluous and grand).

Rooke eschews the dreary wet wool blanket of conventional realism, salting his stories with magic, myth, vituperation and improbability. Often, out of the most dark and moribund situations, he wrestles a startling and uncanny beauty, an affirmation of life, a stunning reversal that does not bespeak any faith or philosophy but a joy in the exuberant play of language. Like his contemporary Alice Munro, he writes outside the box, he writes to push idea of story to the limits and beyond. You sometimes read a Rooke story just for the exhilaration of seeing whether or not he can carry off the high-wire experiment he has launched.

In his new book The Last Shot, you will find stories in the southern style (in the Appalachian demotic of his novel A Good Baby), also parables, myths, burlesques, tirades and tender, wistful love stories. The famously reclusive J. D. Salinger appears in one story, haunting the garbage dump where his refuse ends up to make sure no one steals it. In another story, a magical (or literary) plague of moths invades a Mexican village and delivers a kind of aesthetic grace; it ends “…I felt for the first time what a glory it was to be alive in such a dazzling, incomparably fantastic world.”  In “Magi Dogs” a painter paints a dog into a picture of a house and the dog comes alive. In “Lamplight Bridegroom 360″ a mysterious angel robs a bank, mystifies a crowd of witnesses, and delivers the money to a woman dying in a hospital so she can pay for treatment. Somehow the bank staff doesn’t even know it’s been robbed.  In “How To Write A Successful Short Story”, Rooke hilariously sends up creative writing how-to books and conventional ideas of story (all those the ideas and theories he actually avoids) and incidentally tells a story.

Lately, Rooke seems to be interested in the technique of intercalated stories: I don’t recall seeing him do this before in quite the same way. Stories interrupt and delay other stories. The darkly comic novella “Gator Wrestling” is a novella mostly because of the this structure–the heroine Prissy Thibidault just wants to get across town and see the gator Rufus Seed Junior has caught but Rooke interrupts her journey and her story to tell the stories of just about everyone in town before he allows her to get to Junior’s house and see a mob prodding the somnolent gator with paddles till it ups and rips off Acy Ducey’s arm. Then, in Rooke’s version of Aristotelean peripeteia, magic unfolds: Rufus Seed Junior and his entire family, who have always wanted to go to Africa, turn “a lovely light chocolate”. We refrain here from drawing allegorical conclusions–Rooke is not writing a politically correct racial parable; mostly he seems to be having fun playing with stereotypes and attitudes.

I deeply admire the story “The Yellow House” (I included it in Best Canadian Stories when I was the editor) which sets up camp in a dreamy, fairy tale universe (part-allegory, part Italo Calvino of, say, Cosmicomics): there are two houses across the road from each other; in one, every one is sickly, melancholy, hopeless and dying, with an expansive cemetery attached and one “untidy” peach tree (sort of an inverted Garden of Eden); in the other, everything is bright, cheerful, loving and yellow. One day, for no reason except love, a boy from the yellow house walks down through the cemetery to pick the peaches, then he approaches the sickly house and proposes to the last remaining sister Precilla and kisses her fingers.

Suddenly, in a burst of Rookean afflatus, things get better, the sick house is flooded with yellow light, health blooms, sex is about to happen. “Out at sea, storm clouds were forming, tumbling and turning. A tumult of wind swept low over the water. Over the roof of the yellow house could be seen schools of silver fish in flight inches above the water. School upon school of these silver fish, all flying.”

It makes no sense to ask precisely what this means–something about the mystery of love and the delight of story-telling: in stories, grace can strike like a bolt of lightning and fish can fly over houses.

But maybe the best thing in this book is “Son of Light”, a gorgeously written pseudo myth about creation and death (whose name, in the story, is Dark). “I am death, Dark thinks. I could change you utterly.” The passages in which Dark haunts a mysterious desert oasis, sleeping unseen amongst the nomads for company, are an extraordinary blend of the Biblical, inarticulate dread and amazing intimacy. Only Rooke could write death (Dark) as a lonely young man stuck in a desert, curious and affectionate towards humans who are only partly aware of his presence, awestruck, mistrustful, yet somehow able to live with him.

There is something here, some magic Leon Rooke does with a twist of his hand, a complex image of the relationship between life and death, strangely humanized and desperate, comic, sweet, uncanny and so achingly beautiful you wish it were real.




His presence on earth was not a known thing: Dark, the baby. But out here on the long plain, the flat horizon around him like one thinly-sliced peel of orange, he lived well enough. Well enough, that is, to keep living. Dark could sniff where there was water. He could sneeze, and there was water. Where water was he dropped anchor. Anchor and seed, seed from a full pocket. Animals came, first one, then many. Birds dropped down. Grasses grew. Strange fruits. And, from to time, in the beginning to his distress, people.

All these desert oases–not that many–were his. His work, we should say. Proprietorship as such did not interest him; the occasional nomads appeared; they appeared first on the long straight, trudging single file, cresting one solitary dune after another. Onwards to the oasis.  Where the first dropped down, over time dropped down the many: their parched black bodies falling in a heap. Skin hard as leather. What did they do with themselves before this oasis existed?  Well they would not have come this way would they?  An oasis exists, one heads for it. How otherwise may this long plain be traversed? Let us not be silly.

They crouched in Dark’s water, studying the depths as though for monsters. What is that? A water lily. What does it do? It flowers. And then you eat it? They sat so for hours. They sat on rocks, in his palm trees, on the groomed sand he each morning raked with his fingers. They watched each other and the horizon. If a storm was to blow in, if a cold front threatened, they shouted the announcement, arms flailing. In what seemed initially to Dark’s mind to be gibberish. Some time passed before his ears–unaccustomed to any sound except wind, storms, heat so charged it had its own many tongues–consented to think twice about the jumble issuing from their mouths. They spoke a kind of bejangled song, often dirge-like–until one learned to make in one’s own ears specific tonal adjustments. Then–amazing–it was music.

Against the night’s cold they wore skins, frayed furry jackets, lamb it was. Or kangaroo, wallaby–the hides of tree monkeys to the south. Kangaroo were plentiful out here, together with foxes, wild dogs, sand rats, but where had they acquired lamb? Otherwise they went about largely naked. A wrapping of skin which flapped over the groin, occasionally over the buttocks. Over the head. Looping down the neck’s backside. Bones looping the ankle, the neck. White-ringed eyes to lessen the sun’s glare. Their bodies for the most part were tall and leanish, some might say emaciated. One was aware of bones–a frailty?–in a way that one normally isn’t. Tall? Well, he rid himself of that view soon enough: once he had placed himself beside them.

Who’s there? they would say. In that high-pitched squall their voices clung to when frightened or angry. Or were they merely inquiring, as a fox might? They looked tall only because such meagre flesh adhered to their bones.

Dark rushed to no judgement on this. He was scarcely more than skeleton himself.

Large flat feet with over-large toes, toes all but horned: eyes that were ever in drift towards the horizon. They marvelled at certain cloud formations: caravans of bodies not that much different from themselves. Their children, Dark noticed, even-those new-born, had coarsened skin. A child fresh from the womb was immediately pounced upon. The soles of the feat were beaten, the pinkish hands dipped in briny liquid. Brow and scalp roughened.

Dark held these infants sometimes in his arms, if their mothers were otherwise occupied. How strange!  He had never before beheld an object so incredible buoyant. He probed inside these babies’ mouths. Into every orifice. Surely these bundles were not of this earth. It was like holding…nothing. Until it moved. Until it squiggled. Until it wrestled itself over, clutching for something. Well he knew what it clutched after. He had witnessed the deed often. The creatures attempted nursing at whatever object picked them up. Always hungry: how interesting. Propped against rock or tree, they would attempt to nurse that. It was funny. Dark liked it. True, a pup in the wild would do the same. Still, the instinct engaged him.

He could watch these newly-born–mesmerized–these elongated black lumps–for hours.

They seemed never to cry. He remembered with chagrin his own crybaby years. His own fondness for the teat. Crossing impossible hills–wind, rain–an endless freeze. The Death family, eternal voyagers. Nomads themselves. Endless freeze, yet a warmth that also seemed to go on forever. Take it, sugar. Take the sugar. It was not that long ago. Ages, but what were years to his kind’s reckoning?

A single season that time of his youth was: so it seemed to Dark now.

These bonesome nomads had a hardiness he lacked. A backbone he never had acquired. Yet they followed the sun–they tramped onwards–much as his own parents must have done.

Here they came. First one dark shape on a far dune. Hanging there. Gesticulating. Arms flaying like a beetle upended. Quaint, Dark thought. What transpires there? Then another cresting a more distant rise. The same flaying arms. Hither, come hither. My nose smells water. Onward, one dune after another, those solitary marchers–until, unbelievable, here were the many. All falling in a heap where the first had tumbled down.

Finished, you would think. By thirst, famine, disease–by whatever. Then the one eventually crawling on hands and knees from the heap, scuttling on all fours until some benign impulse arrested his progress. Slowly rising. Other heads lifting. Then a full crawl of black bodies. Finally, all in assembly, upright, gibbering and jabbering.

Often the nomads would unfold their cloth, their poles, tent themselves from the throbbing heat. Unfold their goods. Amazing, the multitude of goods. How were these objects transported, when they travelled so denuded?

A mystery.

Well was he not himself a mystery?

More and more the mystery. Over years–how many?–it came to Dark that he was interested. These nomads, they beguiled him. How could such bones–blackened as cooked rabbit, bony as plucked bird…how could they prevail? How was it they had come to imagine they could?

Sometimes they remained a night, remained several nights. Never more than a week, two weeks. A month–six?–at the most. Where were they going? What strange purpose drove them forward. To what purpose, what end? What was out there?  Or there was this: often he would see them out on the dunes, first the one, then the next. He would drop more seeds, find more water. Prepare for their arrival. But where had they got to? He would himself advance over the sand to meet them–not easy!–and espy them miles and miles in the distance. Crossing the long straight, cresting a dune–advancing his way, yes!–but at a certain point, at one specific dune on the long plain, each arriving party veered. Turned away. Why? There they went, heading off elsewhere. He knew these dunes, knew better than any. A thousand times he had traversed them. Nothing was out there. No oases beyond his own. A thousand miles of desert, desert almost without end. Where were they going? Month upon month, and where were you? In a place no different from that place in which you had found yourselves the day before. Nothing to eat, no water to drink, nothing to see except the same stretch of sand, the same sky, the same nothingness. Desert waves, boiling sun. Kangaroo, foxes, dogs, yes–but fewer by the year. And no water.  No vegetation other than the rare scrub bush. A tuft of…had this once been grass?  Bones. A bird carcass now and then. Flinging itself along through bands of pulsing heat until, exhausted, the wings of a sudden fall still. Down comes bird.

Yet there these nomads went. The space was theirs, he supposed. Always had been. It must be occupied, surveyed anew, found and found again. Might an intruder such as himself otherwise establish domain? No, they cared not a whit about him. His like had always been present. His like explained the barrenness, the lifelessness, the hard grabbling for whatever stock came to hand: the odd growth of thistle here, the patch of grass there. A running hare, a bird, a fox, a snake, a frog, a turtle, a dog. Gristle uprooted from the sand. What more was required?  What more had ever been theirs?

But they did come. A relief. Dark had come to desire, even prefer , their company. Often he remained with them in their tents–frayed cloth held aloft by thin sticks–intrigued: they spoke little, laughed rarely. At the antics of small children playing. There’s a beetle crawling over the sand. Let’s pour sand over this poor crawling beetle. When the beetle at last emerges–befuddled, lost, disoriented–they laugh. Let us heap more sand on the beetle, that we may laugh again. An entire day a child might do this–intent as scholars, the beetle’s fortitude against the abysmal heavens as relentless as their own.

Searching for lice in one another’s hair, grooming that hair, was likewise a serious business. Many bones, twigs, the odd stone, rolls of dead leaves, twists of rusting wire, were to be seen in these heads of hair. Each item carefully laid aside until the cleansing was done. Then washed with spittle and, as carefully, restored.

Any evidence of color was disavowed. Vermilion, any color with a reddish hue, most particularly. At his oasis, any leaf so saturated was discussed endlessly. Then buried. Buried deep. A man or woman, never a child, might spend an entire day digging, digging. Remove this leaf that it may never again be seen. Let the hot sands deal with this. Should it possess an afterlife, let it not be ours.

So, too, a child whose nose dripped the color. Bury him in hot sand until the color ceases. Then whip him so that hereafter
he may not make us endure the ordeal.

The dead were unhappy. It was their blood coloring the leaf.

It amazed him: all those laws laid down. From where? Excuse me, but what is your source?

They smiled, discussed the issue, when a wild dog howled in the distance. Who goes there? By twilight, already they were asleep. Side by side, often in piles, limbs entwined, with no sorting arrangement he could decipher. You slept where your body fell.

They ate little. In fact, next to nothing. A fire, in the general scheme of things, was not required.  Fire, on a whippingly cold night, offered its rewards, generally without respect to supper. What would they cook? Could air be cooked and eaten? Perhaps. In fact, very likely. In fact, what else could so winsomely convey the fragrance? Was this not how he had been feeding?

But these nomads had not the knack. They carried sharpened sticks, tools for hunting. Lures, traps. But out here?  Certainly there were desert foxes, moles, kangaroo–but how often in this wasteland did one see them? Spiders, aphids, mites. By day, sun baked the land relentlessly. By night, whistling wind, a near freeze. You could be sure that if a thing moved it was not a thing alive. Not a thing that could be eaten.

Dark they saw and did not see: it was that kind of business. He would be drowsing, the heat invited such, would open his eyes, and one or more gaze would be upon him. An elder, sometimes a child, often women, poked with a stick that space which he filled. No matter. Sticks could not harm him; their thrusting was a nuisance, no more. They made no attempt to rid themselves of him entirely. His presence was an oldish thing: it was dangerous, the sticks, the gazes, but they could not refrain from expressing their discontent.

Perhaps they understood the water, the grasses, the fruits–this oasis–was his creation and they sojourned within it by his pleasure. It could be. Or it could be that this had not occurred to them. Perhaps they believed the oasis had cast itself onto the sands in the same manner that they had been. He was an entity apart from them. A being in whom blood did not course as it did within themselves, but a being nevertheless. May it keep its distance, may it not sojourn into our flesh, may it do its hunting elsewhere: that is all they asked.

Many of these people Dark now knew from memory. He knew their names. Since his own infancy, in a manner of speaking, they had been arriving; now many were old. So he felt himself to be: old, abandoned, all but useless. He did not regard these interlopers–that they certainly were–as his friends, not exactly. Yet he admitted to queer satisfaction: he liked them. Liked their newborn, their aged, their in-between. He was entranced that their personalities adhered to such meagre variance over the years. A new tribe arrives, how much it is like the previous one? Yet in this regard they could surprise him. They could indeed. Uncanny, their presences in regard to this. Such a multitude of paths they struck, yet how frequently the paths circled back. A youth, now grown old, how the mantle of youth still clung to him. Look at that old man sitting in the sand playing with his beetle. Amazing. Well was he exempt?

Notwithstanding this: many, mean and unkind, pure devils in childhood, were gentle and caring later on. What explanation here?

He remembers from his own youth a storm at sea: lightning bolts by the hundreds, each striking simultaneously: like a tree upended, lightning along every limb, igniting from every bough, the sky lit from horizon to horizon. Days on end, no relief. Thunder so fierce its origin seemed to be within you, of and from those scuttling about the heaving deck. Fires everywhere, bodies picked up and flung into the sea. Six times he had himself been struck by lightning, all within the space of seconds. Lightning skating on water, the sea boiling.

All hands lost. The ship shattered into a thousand pieces.

His work? How could that be, when he was himself floating? Fish of a silvery hue drifted around him in untold number: schools of death; among them, lumbering black sharks split apart far within the depths.


Dark has endured similar storms here. Lightning without cessation, wind and rain without end. Wind strips away your being, rain soaks inside, lodges in the heart. Parts of himself are out in the desert, being nibbled at by sand rats, insects: excuse me, what’s this? Edible? No.

During these storms he now huddles within himself, shivering, locked in his own tight embrace, still as snakes coiled on cold chimney hearths. Lower than snakes, elsewise why his exile here?

His mother soothes him, opens her blouse. Fits a swollen nipple to his lips.

Eat. Sleep. Think nothing. Mother is here.

He wants to go home. Where is home?

A while ago at his oasis an old woman, arriving sick, so misaligned in her features that her sickness might have been diagnosed as leprosy, had died during the tribe’s stay.

Their eyes devoured him. You! they said. Ugly one!

He was innocent. He was not even certain he would remember how. He had in fact, out of curiosity, the intrigue of elements now beyond him, held the old woman’s hands as she slipped away. She had looked into his eyes, at first fearful, then nodding. Yes. Yes, she said. You are innocent. I absolve thee. Such a relief that was to him; his eyes moistened, he would have called her back had he the means. He was not her nemesis. Her nemesis was within.

Clean her body with sand. Elevate the face to the southerly direction. Oil the soles of the feet. Fold a bone within each hand. Seven times encircle her body. Each time snip away a cutting of hair, a cutting of nail, a snippet of cloth. Wedge of skin cut from the thighs, should the dead be unmarried; from the belly, if she is.

In the desert, a dog slunk near him, no more than its own space away; it whined miserably, regarding him through scarred eyes. In the distance other dogs watched. The dog inched forward, lay its head in his lap. Foam leaked for the ears and mouth. With a jerk of the head, the dog died.

I’m innocent, he thought. Death arriving as light from the primeval void, light’s speed versus known and unknown obstruction.

I must quit this place, he thought .

The tribe ventured north. He trekked along for the company. They came to rocky shelter whose inhabitants greeted them as though with little comprehension. They ate. Music of a peculiarly Old World kind was played–a somewhat barren sound, reedy, as though it had long been confined to earth.

He loved the cold caves they slept in. A very beautiful young girl slept beside him an entire night: his eyes open, watching the dark. Listening to her heartbeat. She knew someone was beside her–initially she was on guard, without being precisely frightened. Once during the night, she raised up, lifted her thin arms, yawned, then collapsed back into sleep.

He must himself have slept a long time–years perhaps. He waked to a feeling of emptiness, cold and trembling, unable to think where he was. The word ‘tomb’ came to him. Then, ‘entombed.’ That brought a laugh, and he felt better.

He was hungry, starving in fact, but whenever was that not the case? Insects were crawling over him. They must have believed him dead; if, that is, insects held beliefs–which thought brought on another smile. It was at this point that he realized he was enjoying himself. He held aloft one of those insects: a hard dull shell the color of the stony world it inhabited: all those wheeling legs, the waggling head, the bulging eyes–yes?– and found himself entertaining a ludicrous, if wondrous thought. What if he could mate as insects might?

In the cave the nomads had been digging a well. The  digging had been going on for thousands of years. Workers were lowered by rope into darkness. If you listened carefully you could just hear the resounding hammer and chisel. No more than two could work at a time, and the best workers had to be down longest. No one wanted to be thought of as a best worker and for this reason they were habitually complaining about how worthless they were when it came to hammer and chisel. Workers who remained too long were blind for days and days. They emerged, walking in circles, babbling. Tumbling over. Blindfolds were affixed to their eyes. They had to be led by hand to food and water. They seemed to know no one. They believed a black cloud hovered about their heads; they succumbed to panic and flayed at the blackness. They had to be restrained, locked up, put into a cage, or they might do harm to themselves. They spoke of coming across strange parties down there–parties whose outside was inside, who flaked into nothingness when touched, a nothingness that then took shape inside themselves. They screamed through the night. Occasionally they did not emerge from this madness, and were ever venturing out upon the sun-drenched dunes. Disappearing.

No one could accurately assess the depth of the great well. Each measurement had a radically different result. A thousand years digging. Why?

The hours of the day admire their every tick. Each second is a thrill.

The day’s heat was tight knobs of air. You would see out over the desert a massive army trudging your way. But it was heat walking. Heat walked under your shade and the shade burst into flames. Flames out on the dunes, where the very air had caught fire. The very sands did. One’s very eyelids did. Red ants strode the horizon. Fire plants bloomed in the sky: a red forest. Clouds aflame.

He caught a cold, caught worse, and for months curled up into a corner, whining softly, in embrace of himself. Bats hung by day around him, at dusk, first one, then a second, then all in harmony stirring their wings–gone.

A letter was found. Who knows how long it had been buried in the sand? The paper disintegrated in his hand. This hardly mattered. Deciphering ancient texts was old stuff to him. Where he was defeated was in capturing the tone.

Come home, the letter said.



In the city, at Dark’s favored hotel, the hospitaller rushes from his office to greet him. He bows effusively, smiles with the excesses of one in rapture. The hospitaller invites him inside his tiny office. Offers coffee, tea, a biscuit. A glass of plonk, my esteemed friend, or is it too early? Something stronger? This man, like Dark himself, is not native to these parts. He is a newcomer, like the Sikhs, the Germans, the Chinese with their restaurants, the Asians with their taxies. A hospitaller, he knows the importance of a grand welcome. Kiss the lady’s hand, marvel at the arrival of the hatless gentlemen from the desert. Let the man know that his heart beats only for such arrivals: in your absence I have been as a man sick with fever, afloat in apathy, aswim in self-pity. Incomplete. Now, my friend, you are here, and the sun has returned to its proper orbit. Here, let me take your coat. Loosen your tie, rest your feet on this stool.

Travelling so takes it out of one, I’m an innkeeper, do I not know? It tires one, it bags the bones–but, ah, the exhilaration, those new worlds, each of which must be conquered.

All the same, alas, dear friend, we have no vacancy, none at all. How wearisome, I am abject, my apologies! If only I had known you were coming, if only–dare I offer this criticism–if only you had called in your reservation.

The usual, then?

Why, yes, of course the usual. What you must think of me! That I, a newcomer like yourself, in exile, so to speak, like yourself, would turn away a traveller of your distinction! The traveller must be rewarded, must he not? Where would our universe be without the traveller? Marco, Marco Polo, did he not set the pace? Is he not our model, are we not in his shadow? Even you, signor, a foremost globe-trotter. Another glass, then, for our unparalleled Marco–cheers, skol, salud, salute, bottoms up! If we did not have business to summon us, I would say let’s empty the decanter.

The hospitaller’s sofa, then, as usual?

Of course, my sofa. The honor is mine. In there, the little toilette where you may shower and shave, the small shelf where you may stow your belongings. The same peg to hold your coat–oh my, oh my, is it ever dusty. Oh, you travellers, the endurance, the struggle, wind, snow, and rain, but the road is ever there, is it not, it ever beckons. Marco Polo, what travails were sent his way. But ever onwards, onwards, is that not the theory. Onwards, for what awaits us around the next curve, dear me, those spices, can we help being chilled with wonder! But forgive me this prattling, I see you are exhausted. Such long days, such long nights, and nothing but bedbugs, bad water, dust in the nostrils. Tomorrow, by all means tomorrow you must tell me of your sojourn in the desert. The desert, it changes one’s perspective, no? But later, yes later. For now, stretch out on my long sofa, pure leather, black as miner’s black lung, beautiful, is it not?  Here, let me slip off your shoes, I shall have them polished. You need tending, sire, no question, you are looking bony, ragged, lustreless, if I may use that word. Near death, if I may speak frankly. But a wee catnap and you shall be yourself again. I’ll lower the lights, if I may, let me spread over you this soft coverlet. There you are, yes, close your eyes. That scalp will need looking after, you know, it’s baked, your poor noggin is a sea of blisters. You really must wear a hat, you know. Our friend Marco without his hat, what would he have accomplished?  Signor, why did you not follow his example?

Ah, my voice tires you, my apologies, my pleasure in seeing you yanks my tongue one way and another. So sleep, my friend, rest the weary bones. Then onwards, onwards, side by side with dear Marco, eh? I understand, a man of your calling may not tarry, may not dally. My heart will ache, I shall brim with sorrow at your absence. But you will return, will you not? Of course, you are the hospitaller’s glory, without you what purpose would I serve? Until the next time, then, signor! A private room shall we waiting, I promise you, I shall keep the reservation open. Yes, always open, what, in this day and age, that a being of your distinction should be compelled to inhabit a stable?

What? Excuse me, signor, did I hear you correctly? You wish to go home? I am distressed, signor, I will weep tears, but it is as you say: even our friend Marco must from time to time return home. For restoration, to shore up one’s vitality, to see the family, to net our grievances–one or the other. It will be our loss, signor. As you say, your heart has too long been riding the bumpy wagon. Are those tears in your eyes? No worry, we all have them. Shall I say it, signor? Your work here has not gone unnoticed. Your presence has been remarked upon, and not, alas, always agreeably. People talk, you know. Callous remarks are passed. But take no notice, signor: beings such as ourselves, are we ever applauded in our own backyards? And yet, signor: a single drop of moisture on the dry tongue, is that not sweetness of a kind to keep us steadfast, even fertile, in our labor? The beetle on the green leaf, is he too not in part the dreamer? The cloud passes overhead, does not the worthy traveller say Hello, as to a fellow sojourner? So, go home, yes, signor: by all means make the journey. Was this not the motivation for dear Marco’s incredible journey? That his mother should kiss him?

Be assured, signor: the hospitaller shall make all arrangements. Putt-putt, yes, a ship, this is your one available choice. Unless you have learned to walk upon water. No? Then sleep the sleep of an innocent child, old friend. Leave all picky details to me, your hospitaller.


Dark, in his sleep, already walks the ship’s deck–the sea easy, a bright moon hanging. To see the world through the eyes  of his blind hospitaller, he thinks: how strange that must be.  I steer myself by the sound of another’s breathing, the hospitaller had said to him at their first meeting. On a city street this was, in the long, long ago–Dark lost, after an endless time drifting–the hospitaller’s hand a sudden gentle touch at his elbow. By my lights, this is among the heart’s major duties. But you do not breathe, signor, so it was with difficulty that a blind hospitaller could find you. And now that I have, as I am sightless, it must be you who guides me across this noisy street. Take my arm, signor.

Your arm? What was I previously touching, hospitaller?

My heart, signor. Mind the curb now.


Let us stroll along together for a while, signor. Like our friend, Marco, arm-in-arm with  a spice merchant, negotiating terms, let’s say.

How did you come to be blind, hospitaller?

Who knows, signor? Every hospitaller is, that is how matters stand. Long ago,

a nail driven

through a board

split that board

A blind man

passing by

was first to notice

so it came to pass that every hospitaller, as a condition for employment, must be blind. Marco Polo, recall, told his crew his ship’s flag must flutter against wind. Otherwise the world’s true spice capitals would elude them.

I do breathe, hospitaller. Your exhalations are my inhalations. As your breath crests a wave, mine is the stilled water in wait between.

No, signor. This not breath.



What a surprising cargo: in the ship’s hold are bags and bags of pomegranates.

Mice and their ferocious kin nose among the bags, nip the ripening fruit. For nourishment, they prefer the burlap. Dark secures a space for himself among the lumpy bags, here his head, there his feet. The vermin sniff his calloused soles, probe the thick curvature of his nails. They lift their gleaming, scornful eyes: why are you here? What business do you have with us? We want cheese, peanut butter, bacon, New Zealand beef. We want to lick grease, sing songs, dance. Pay attention. Open your eyes. Talk to us. Explain yourself.

Or it may be that they mistake him for one of their own. It is not as though they are given to civility even with each other. Only when cornered by a seaman with a broom is their affinity with common humanity displayed.

Water sloshes along the boards, wetting him. Back and forth, slosh, slosh.

No matter.

Scum, algae, wasp dens, dirtdauber lairs, seaweed, moss, barnacled growths–up there, light spilling between boards, a tropical fern– occupy the walls. A trapped bird flutters endlessly about–in misery, in consternation, scummy-eyed, the head bloody, feathers sparse.

No matter.

Dark rises sorrowfully: his bones ache, movement is a torture. The bird obligingly flies into his cupped hand. He strokes the bird until its tremors cease. Such a quick, urgent heart. It could be the hospitaller is right: he has no heart to beat such as this. A rat glares at him. No favoritism, the rat says.

Daylight. Blinding daylight, he must rub his eyes.

The bird crouches in his open hand. The small heart palpitates, wind ruffles its mite-ridden feathers. I don’t know why any of this has happened to me. Were I a thinking bird I would take up my situation with a higher authority.

Even up here away from the hole, in cutting wind, one can smell the lush aroma of pomegranates.

The bird lists away; it steers a faltering course before wind halts its progress altogether. It hangs motionless there, fighting the wind. Why will the creature not turn, let the current sweep it away? Matters are not as they should be. Must every breath be an ordeal? The bird’s wings close,  wind releases its grip, the bird plummets. This it recognizes, this it knows. It has been here before: this is mere acrobatics, a question of instinct, something in the bones. Time to soar. But all at once the bird is swooping past him. It flits back into the familiar black hole.

Dark’s feet feel entangled as though by ropes.

Now rain. Hard rain. So much rain.

He remembers seeing once, in the desert, in rippling heat thick as lava pouring along a shelf, a fleet of tall ships skimming the sand. Then the ships one by one burst into flames.
One time, a scrap of paper flew up into his face. Worn by wind and time, tissue-thin, bleached by sun. Indecipherable.

The nomads encamped at his oasis were absorbed with his table, the table where sometimes sat to think deep thoughts. They sat on his table, eating their food. Each had to crawl beneath it to study the table’s underside. They turned over the table and laughed at the four legs thrusting into air. Like woman, someone said. They shook the legs, laughing. They counted the legs. Like two womans, someone said. They laughed harder. An elder dropped down, mounting the table. Not like two womans, he said. No one laughed. They looked with unforgiving silence at the table. After a few days they scorned it and him. The table to them became invisible.

In the ship’s forward hatch a seaman obsessed with walls is placing love inside a very small box. Carefully, as though he holds a precious vase. Now he is wrapping the box in material so much the color of his own flesh he seems to be without hands. He will pitch his little box over the side when no one is looking. That is how certain kinds of love are dispersed into the world, he tells Dark: an open sea, no one looking.

Out on the sea the waves lash out. Foam spews from every mouth. The waves curse the wind, which curses them. Each wave curses the day it was born. The wind loves what it is doing.

Just look, wind says, at those hideous waves. The waves will have nothing to do with each other until they strike shore, where they will attempt to chew every predecessor into tiny bits.

Look at that stupid box. Where does it think it is going?

Look, there’s Dark looking at us. He looks as beaten about as we are: he can hardly hold up his head.

He dreams. It amazes him, these other worlds that slumber inside him. The rabid dog crawling up to settle its head on his lap. Uninvited. Stroke me, the dog said.

In a forward cabin, the skipper too is resting his head, closing his eyes. Thinking, If only I knew where I was going. If only.

The Captain is plunged into solitude. That is why he is drinking. Something like this always hits him midway a journey. He is lulled into grief precisely at that point in a journey when a thousand ports are scant hours apart in terms of the time necessary to reach any one of them. The Captain is certain his cargo–pomegranates, how strange!–would be welcomed at any port visited. Shore leave for his crew would take much the same form, whatever the port: the same bars, the same black eyes, the same whoring.

The Captain dreams himself a sweetheart in every port. How mystical, how practical, is he different from any other seagoing individual? Well, hardly.

In the very port just departed the mistress he loves, loves deeply, will already be forgetting him. Another year until Who’s-its return, she will be thinking as she unrolls the bolt of fine silk he has dropped on her bed. Ahead, another he is himself just now beginning to remember.

He loves all of these women, loves them deeply–most of all those that exist only in his head. Over there a port and over there another port and over there a hundred other ports. Such and so many nautical miles to one, to another: scarcely any difference.

Docking is always for him the hard part. He has never got the hang of docking a ship of this size. A junior officer must take the helm. It is good training for them. They like the job. No one suspects.

Except for that curious passenger down in the hole, asleep among the pomegranates: the Captain is fairly certain this passenger knows the score. Their eyes have met.

But the passenger is listless, he exerts no authority. His power to influence matters will not be exercised on this trip. Like any other passenger, Dark is only leaving one place for arrival at another. He desires only a smooth crossing. No storms at sea, no failures in the engine room. Steady as she goes: he wants that.

The Captain pours more whisky into his glass. Shadows flit here and there. The ship rocks, relaxes back, rocks: boards buckle and groan: it knows how it must behave, and the sea too is, for the moment, merciful.

The ship cuts through the waves. It has no doubts. It is not a ship that has known heartbreak. Pomegranates, the ship is thinking. How beautiful.

A seaman sings in the crew’s shower room.

Sometimes I feel, sings the seaman. He sings with a throaty woman’s voice. All hands hold still when the seaman sings in the woman’s voice. They sit or stand alone, heads hanging, bereft and bedraggled, like rags about to be thrown overboard. Only when the seaman’s singing voice dies will they again be swashbuckling men of the sea. An interesting story is told about this seaman whose singing voice is like a woman’s. In Naples, in Odessa, in whatever rough dock bar, in whatever port city he has shore leave, he swaggers into these bars in his thick seaman’s coat, his black seaman’s cap and steel-toed seaman’s boots: he shouts out, And how are all you fine homosexuals this lovely evening?

Sometimes I feel, sings the singer, like a motherless child.  But the seaman’s song must wait, since there happens at this time in Dark’s voyage the incident of the seaman who loved walls.



“What does the wall say? If it is raining, or cold, or a no-nonsense wind blows, the wall says, Would someone please close that window. The wall speaks politely for the most part. If someone arrives with mop and broom it says nothing. It puts on a gloomy expression, not wanting you to note its pleasure. At night the wall stands there thinking deep thoughts. It is prey to nostalgia. Sometimes–not that often, mind you–lust comes over it like a smile over the madonna. The walls have eyes and ears is a line you might have heard. But this is not strictly true. A wall has a nose, though, and smells you as you pass. I’ve heard them sneezing from time to time. There was a wall I once knew which could run faster than you or me or anyone. Certainly faster than other walls. Walls marry each other. They mate for life, just as does the occasional seaman, animal, or bird. If I ever was to fall in love with a wall I would want to marry it. It goes without saying that walls come and go. They go up, they come down: that’s the natural law of walls. A wall will fall on you, if you’re not careful. They would like to, that goes without saying. A wall hardly knows its own strength. Walls hate trees, whereas they have a warm respect for dogs, for cats–cats most particularly. You can hear their giggles, their pride, as a cat walks a wall. Walls are thirsty. They have a drinking problem. A wall is distrustful of other walls perceived in the distance. What’s that wall up to? You will hear this whispered to you as you pass by.  Outside walls and inside walls have nothing in common, a fact which may strike you as obvious, but I mention it to you because the matter goes deeper than that. What does a wall say? If it is raining, or cold, or a no-nonsense wind blows, the wall says, Would someone please close that window. It speaks politely for the most part. Walls abominate each other. Wars have been declared. If at the end of these wars no wall is left standing, neither outside wall nor inside wall–of course they are both outside walls now–neither will say it is sorry. They have no regret about being seen as heaps of rubble. Regret is not a word in their vocabulary, which is small. Stop. Go. Listen. Quit that. Give me ice cream. Close the window please. Such as that. They are dense to the point of idiocy, or so claim a number of experts in the subject. They have little ambition. Education, travel, the arts–they could care less. But they’ll comfort you on a cold night. They’ll stay beside you when no one else will. They lead long lives. They rarely fall ill, which is why wall physicians are in such short supply. Death’s walls, however: no personality.”


A long way from home, sings the seaman with the woman’s voice.  But the seaman now is stepping from his shower, he is drying himself with a thin blue towel: his ears, between his toes, his scrotum. Not in the slightest does he resemble a woman: burly, big-thighed, compact as a discus-thrower. He is humming, he softly hums, but no one has even the smallest interest in his womanly hums. Like I am almost gone, is his hum. A long way from home. Who cares? Shut up. Because there is beginning now the incident of the seaman trickster.



A seaman in the crew’s sleeping quarters does cap tricks. Find the cap, I pay you ten dollars. The cap cannot be found, you pay me one single. How can a party lose? There the cap is on the man’s head. Dollars flutter in every crew member’s hand. The trickster seaman’s arms whirl, he pirouettes along the floor. The arms fall slack. The cap is gone. The cap is nowhere to be seen. His money is collected.

Again, find the cap. Twenty to one, how can you lose? There he stands, under his cap, grinning. Okay, thirty to one, which of you is ripe for the plucking? Bills flutter, every crew member participating. Okay, but this time none of that spinning, don’t spin. Fine, no spinning. The hat is on his head, there it is. Every eye watching. The seaman is encircled by the crew, how can they lose? The man winks, his mouth opens, his tongue darts out. His ears wiggle. The cap remains on his head. He jiggles buttocks, walks a slow circle. Stoops. Stands. The cap has gone. Cries go up. You mean fucker! You cheater!

Find the cap, says the man. Or pay up.

But the crew must search his body. They must remove his every stitch of clothing. He stands naked before them, grinning. No hat. They search the floor, the walls. His cap is nowhere to be found.

“Fifty to one,” he says. “Make it easy on yourselves.” There the cap is on his head.

At midnight he is still going. Crew members have pledged to him their coming year’s wages. Fifty thousand to one, the odds now are. We are desperate. The rules have changed. The capman remains naked. He is bound by ropes hand and foot. He sits on a paint can in a tub of water.

“The trouble,” someone says, “–is with that cap.”

Sure, that’s the problem. What do you mean?

“It’s a what-do-you-it, that cap. An optical illusion.”

“But we saw it. We touched it.”

The capman, a muscular Japanese, sits naked and immobile in his tub of water. Grinning. That cap restored to his head; waiting the next turn.

“Let him do it without the cap,” a voice suggests.

“What do you mean?”

“He starts off capless. No cap. We have the cap. But when he’s done the cap must be back on his head.

This idea is applauded.

“Can you do it?”

“Sure thing. Even bet. My fifty against your fifty.”

I.O.U’s flutter. Every cap of every crew member is removed from the room. The entire crew decides it too must strip. They must all be naked. The trickster’s cap is secretly hurled into the sea.



The grinning trickster closes his eyes. His cheeks flare. The tongue darts. The men watch, utterly silent. Nothing is happening. Time passes. Such a long time passes. Every man is aware of the ship’s creaking, of this and that swell, the ship’s roll, the hum, vibrations from the engine room. Their destiny: a year without wages. What will their wives say? How will their children survive? To lose their wages on drink, the long binge, a spell in the brig, this a wife can understand. Such is her fate. But for a cap? Merciless Father, what have they done? But now all is not lost. Something can be recouped from their misfortune. Nothing is happening. The muscular Japanese is sweating. His eyes bulge. The little rat has out-foxed himself. They’ve got the little rat cornered.

“I want to raise the ante,” the little rat says.

“What? “

“Sign over your entire lifetime’s wages to me,” he says, “if I can make the cap return to my head.”

“And what do we get?”

“The satisfaction of learning how the trick is done. You can sign-on on other ships. Make your fortune.”

The crew talks this over. Debates rage. Finally it is decided. They will do it. They scribble these declarations upon scraps of paper.

The seaman’s body turns red, turn’s blue. Muscles ripple.  Something is happening along the capman’s scalp. A vague whiteness is there. Something–can it be a cap?–is forming on his head.

Yes, there it is, that terrifying cap that a moment ago was hurled into the sea.

“Pay up,” he say. “Untie me.”

They stare at him. They stare at his awful cap.

Untie me, he repeats.

Not one among them will step forward. How they hate him. He owns their lives, but he is tied there, trussed up like a rat, with his bowl of I.O.U.’s. Finally someone does move. He strikes a match. He holds the flaring match over the assembled I.O.U.s.

The seaman trickster grins.

“Ah, but if you do that,” he says, “I shall own your souls.”

The man with the match hesitates. Seamen are superstitious folk, given to hallucination, rope dreams, dark nightmare. They know the sea is deep, the sky a mystery.

Even now, a mystery is unfolding. The trickster’s bonds are slackening. One by one ropes are falling like dead snakes about his feet. His grin has changed into a thing malevolent.

“The burning would not free you,” he tells them. “Nor would your knives inside my body.”

The seamen know that the man speaks the truth. They are helpless. Their fate is settled. Such is the destiny of every seaman sooner or later. This has nothing to do with disappearing caps. Their lives were never their own. Souls, less so.


Morning. One, after so many. Seamen rush about like bodies released from an asylum. Swash this, swash that, wrap rope to a hundred irons. Hurry up now. Gulls, other seabirds, laze in meditation over the ship, over the water, over one another. A bell rings. Whistles toot. Engines seek the deepest bass.

Secure the hatchets. Ready the anchor. Steady now.

Hail, Capitan! What shore?

Passing the Captain’s quarters, Dark sees a hooded figure just then emerging. A start of surprise. The figure is one of his own, though still a novice. Hardly more than a boy. But ardent in his enterprise, eager–Dark sees that. One of the old-fashioned kind. Dark can almost see the scythe in the boy’s hand. From the very air blowing through the cracks around the Captain’s door he can smell the boy’s work inside that room.

The boy at least has the grace to hide his head. He darts past. Then he is on the water, skimming that water to shore: black cloud above the foam.

Dark opens each porthole in the Captain’s cabin. He spreads pomegranate seeds over every space. Full fruits he stashes in the pockets of the Captain’s clothes. Bag after bagful he rolls under the Captain’s bunk. Linked fruit top the Captain’s charts. Dart likes the Captain. He interests him.

The Captain, pallid, stands by his junior officer at the helm. He watches the helmsman’s every move. At the dock a throng of people are waiting. The Captain is old: too many oceans. Soon enough he will know who has come to greet him.



The laboratories.

What guides Dark’s footsteps? How does Dark know? In no time at all he is entering the laboratory grounds. Security cameras, inside and out, might have caught a shadow whipping past. What was that? What? That shadow, there it is again. Well, whatever it was, it’s gone now.

I am death, Dark thinks. I could change you utterly.

Elevators frighten him; he takes the stairs. Locked doors prove no difficulty. Now he strides a long white corridor, shielding his eyes from the glare. So many lights, so much glare.

What is that pulsing? A sign, HEART WING. There to his front, a pair of swinging doors. Another sign, LONGEVITY UNIT.  He sees endless aisles, tables placed end upon end, stretching a vast distance, the working surfaces covered with vials, tubes, bubbling liquids, microscopes. Cultures under glass. Workers in identical white tie-ons, most of them stationary, bent at these same tables, at these same microscopes. Scribbling onto color-coded tablets: white, yellow, blue.

His kind.

They work in silence, save for a vibrating hum emerging from the floor, the walls. The hum slows, ceases. He must exist as its cause. All turn now. Some rise, juggle spectacles, reduce a flame, slide one way and another this or that item. A hush settles. All are looking at him. They gawk, they murmur to each other. Smiles replace the quick frown. A few look away, down a far aisle. This or that one utters exclamation. Dark hears a voice–clear, precise, meant to be obeyed: Someone go tell Light her son is here. More whispering: a mutter. But now they are turning away: work calls them. So much work, so many years.

A woman’s heels are clattering. Not clattering, not heels exactly…a subdued sound, in fact, softest rubber. But in this hush, with these ears, in this pulsing, in the absence of the beating heart, every sound is magnified.

And here she is. Here someone is. Running his way. A screech. Another screech: his name. Daaaarrrkkk! The sound goes through him, hits the wall, bounces and echoes. His name. How long since he has heard it spoken? Such quivering in how she calls that name. Such heartbreak, such joy. Over there: a dart of whiteness along a far aisle, now that way, now this!

There she is, here she comes. Smiling, and such a smile. Dark feels his own face cracking open. He is leaving himself, he will fade as a shaft of darkness, a weightlessness of dust sifting beneath the floor.

“You’re here!” she cries. “You’re home!”

Arms enfold him.


—Leon Rooke

(“Son of Light” appeared originally in The Toby Press edition of The Republic of Letters, compiled by Saul Bellow and Keith Botsford)


Apr 032017

My short story “Money” (first published in The Brooklyn Rail) just came out in the new 2016 edition (yes, seems a bit late) of Best Canadian Stories. Nice company, including Leon Rooke, Cynthia Flood and Elise Levine (we have a review of her new novel coming in the current issue).

Here’s a taste of the story. You can read it online at TBR, or get a copy of the book.


Drebel started when he was fourteen organizing a grocery shopping service for the elderly in his neighborhood. He charged a flat rate per bag, accepted gratuities, and handled the cash exchange between the grocery store and the old people. Once he gained a customer’s trust, he would skim a percentage off the change, especially when the old man or woman couldn’t see that well. He would smile winningly while counting out the money; the old folks loved having a young person to socialize with. Seeing themselves reflected in his eyes, they thought they were smart, plucky oldtimers. Later, he was able to arrange a small quid pro quo from the supermarket manager’s petty cash to steer his customers away from competitors. He never bought bulk or generic. When an elderly party insisted on cheaper brands, Drebel would shrug and say the store was out. He watched for customers whose memory was failing and preyed on them, lifting a hundred dollar bill from the open purse or pocketing an expensive watch from the sideboard. Once he swiped a handful of silver cutlery from a drawer, sweeping it into his courier bag and clanking out the door. But he had trouble fencing the forks and spoons, and he was really only interested in the cash. He couldn’t help becoming fond of the old woman who said she would put him in her will, though he knew she wouldn’t. He didn’t take any offer of warmth or affection personally. He knew the old people were wrapped tight in their narrow lives, narrower and narrower as they grew older. They could be just as devious and mean as the next person. Drebel noticed how the codgers took a perverse pride in trying to shortchange him, arguing over the receipts, shaving the tip. “Here’s another quarter, son. Oh, drat. I thought I had another quarter. Next time?” He didn’t care. All he wanted was his cut, the skim.

Read the rest at The Brooklyn Rail.

Sep 042014


rlandonRichard Landon—Photo: Rick/Simon


In late 1988 I was hired to develop a series of year-long programs on current Canadian fiction for the Toronto radio station CJRT, now exclusively a Jazz FM station. The station had had an earlier program on Canadian fiction, but it was felt it was time to update as a new crop of writers had emerged, as indeed they had.

I drew up a list, I underwent a series of interviews and trial tapes, and I took a year off from my main gig, which was as a professor of English at a Toronto university. It was an intense year, 1988-89, both for professional and personal reasons, but my focus was the studio and an accompanying workbook for students who might want to enroll in a credit course connected to my programs, and we were off to the races.

Mavis Gallant was one of a distinguished company of writers and critics and visual artists whom I invited in to the studio to be interviewed.  Of course I wanted the writers to speak for themselves, but I also wanted to have others speak to them, and about them. I spent two days with Mavis Gallant in the fall of 1989, both in studio and in the city proper, but in the summer before I met her I interviewed Richard Landon (1942-2011), then Director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, where Gallant’s papers are held.

I felt a conversation with someone who knew her work and also knew her would help me in my planned interview. Over many years of my reading Gallant, I had found her both intriguing and enigmatic. I hoped for some guidance and for some basis for comparison. I wanted to know about the contents of her “living” archives, that crucial period where an artist gets to make a choice about what is to be saved by deposit and thereby directs future commentary and research. And some of the questions which arose in this interview with Richard Landon would surface later in the fall when I spoke directly to Gallant herself.

Although most of her writing life had been spent in Europe, Gallant had been frequently in Canada. Richard Landon knew her well, and was also intimate with her work and of course her papers. He seemed ideal, both as a reader and a scholar, for an introduction to Gallant’s extraordinary talent and her working methods.

— Karen Mulhallen


July 27, 1989

Karen Mulhallen (KM): Richard, I’m looking at a xerox copy of a very brief note from Mavis Gallant. I don’t know when this note was written, it’s not dated, but it is something to do with From the Fifteenth District, Mavis Gallant’s collection of nine stories published in 1979. Toronto. What are these two xerox sheets I have in front of me?

Richard Landon (RL): This is a note Mavis wrote when she sent a batch of her papers to the Fisher Library. Her papers come in little batches and sometimes she puts in notes that are either explanatory or give critical comments from her on the material. Sometimes they are about who edited her work for The New Yorker, normally William Maxwell. This note is amusing, because one of the characters in the title story in From  the Fifteenth District is a social worker named  Alicia Fohrenbach who turned out to have a real life counterpart in the United States.

KM: What does she say in this note? Can you decipher it for me?

RL:From the Fifteenth District was written and published in 1978 and in it the name Alicia Fohrenbach was invented. I received several letters from a Doctor Alicia Fohrenbach in the U.S., a psychologist. These coincidences often arise and are tricky to handle. Luckily Dr. Fohrenbach was willing to believe that I had never heard  of her. However, as she had graduated from some institution called Regius, the coincidence was more than close. This is one of my favourite stories, but my readers were baffled and irritated by it. MG” The reference is to the hospital from which Mrs. Ibrahim is being discharged, which is called Regius  Hospital.


KM: Yes, I see the passage, a little past page 165 at the centre of the collection, probably in all editions? It is curious, more than an odd coincidence. Writers are, I think, prescient. Do you think Gallant is sensitive to the possibilities of intuiting things. After all, one of the stories is about ghosts.

RL: I think she is. I don’t know that she would claim to be prescient in that way at all, but part of her technique is the accumulation of detail, which is one of the most impressive things about her writing, its precision. There is an easy recognition on the part of the reader of things you don’t normally think about. She describes people’s fingernails, small incidents, very precise details of a scene — I suppose the accumulation does somehow give a notion of prescience.

KM: In rereading the stories in From The Fifteenth District, I noticed sentences that didn’t seem to belong to paragraphs. And it’s just what you’ve said, all that detail by the end of a story is in many ways overwhelming. She does this too with metaphors.

I was looking at the opening story, “ The Four Seasons,” just at the end of the fourth section, page 28: “ ‘That’s not our property’ Mrs Unwin cried. The man said ‘You hired me and I am here,’ and kept on sawing.”

This is a scene where the Marchesa’s date tree has grown up again, and Mrs. Unwin is  feeling the perfume fumes from the tree are noxious and she has a successful court order against the Marchesa and her tree. The Marchesa has long ago left her garden and so in comes this local to cut down the tree, and he decides he will not just cut down the overhanging branches but will cut down the whole tree and he breaks through the fence. That’s why Mrs. Unwin says, “ That’s not our property.” Meanwhile in the scene we’re reminded of the chauffeur of the Marchesa. The Marchesa has fled before the coming Allied forces. Mussolini’s war activities are failing, so people are leaving the country as Hitler is failing. The Marchesa has fled because, despite her Italian title, she is an English woman. Her chauffeur hangs around the garden like an abandoned domestic animal.

The chauffeur had walked the Marchesa’s dogs, and on the road there is a convoy of army lorries moving like crabs on the floor of the ocean. You think my goodness what are these army lorries doing? And we haven’t seen him before. And why are the lorries described like crabs in the ocean. Then you realize that the whole story is shot through with these images of the sea, and the maid Carmela looks out to the sea and is afraid, and then she’s underwater. It’s such an accumulation of detail — the sea, the army, the Marchesa’s dogs, her chauffeur, all together. And yet that’s got nothing to do with the cutting down of the tree at the beginning of the whole movement.


RL:  But it is not the sea as most people notice the sea; it’s quite threatening and boring, and is often described as a line on the horizon and as unattainable. There is always a road or a railway between them and the sea. It is this sense of alienation which they have by some kind of accident in a particular situation. They’re stuck. The Marchesa might get away, but no one else does.

KM: You know she got away because the story begins with her eating ice cream and anybody who eats ice cream in this story is going to get out some way!

RL: But the principle characters never get out. There’s a kind of universal rootlessness about many of the stories. The one that most affected me on rereading is called “Potter.” It’s quite long, one of the longer ones, about the Polish poet and lecturer in Paris and his American lover, Laurie Bennett, and his reaction to her going off with someone else.

It’s a more complete story in some ways because it has a movement of plot. Laurie goes off to Venice, he’s devastated, and a good deal of it is describing his reaction to her leaving. He then has his visa revoked — he’s lecturing in Paris — and at the same time she sends him a postcard telling him she is coming back. The end of the story is about him going back to Poland, from which he might never again emerge, whereas she thinks she’s resumed the relationship. It sounds a bit banal, but it’s the way it’s expressed that is extremely impressive. It’s quite haunting.

KM: What do you find impressive?

RL: Her observations about how people react to each other and to external forces, and even to the city of Paris, to the weather. It all has a real accuracy and is recognizable. You think that’s right, I would never have expressed that, but in fact, that’s how I might feel.

KM: And Mavis has the girl misspelling the word ‘separate,’ which really impressed me. This is the kind of girl who can’t spell in her love letters: “We’re seperating forever,” she says. And in another she described him as a “really sensative person.”

RL: Yes,  it’s those details..

KM …which are her talent?

RL: Yes, in a real way.

KM: Do you find alterations, revisions in the manuscript?

RL: I have here the first three pages of typescript of a story in From the Fifteenth District.  It’s pretty clean.

KM: Does she write long hand, does she type, does she word process?

RL: She mainly types and then corrects in holograph, that is by hand. She might write drafts, but what we get at the Fisher Library is essentially what is sent to The New Yorker magazine. It’s edited there and then sent back to her. So you get two kinds of marks, her corrections and the odd suggestion by an editor with the technical notes about how to set it for printing.


KM: How did Fisher acquire these papers, which are an ongoing collection, aren’t they?

RL: Yes. It began when the University of Toronto invited Mavis Gallant to be Writer-in-Residence, in 1980, I believe. She wasn’t able to take it up then, but she did come in ’83-’84 as Writer-in Residence, living at Massey College. Shortly after she was invited she wrote to ask whether we would be interested in having her papers, which she wished to give to us, saying in one of the letters she strongly disapproved of writers selling their papers.

KM; That’s interesting, so she just gives them to you. That’s unusual.

RL: And, of course, there is no tax advantage for her either because she  lives in France.

KM: Do you have other writers who have simply given their papers?

RL: Josef Skvorecky, David Solway, Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee.

KM: In all those cases, there are also tax advantages.

RL: Yes, they do get evaluated.

But obviously, for Gallant, this is a conscious decision. There is no particular association with Toronto, except that she remembered it from the 1950s. Not everyone’s fondest memory…! One would have imagined because she grew up in Montreal, went to school there, worked there briefly, before going to Paris, which was about 1950, that her Canadian association would be directly Montreal. She did explain that she objected to the Quebec language law and that sort of thing. I think she came to Toronto, was impressed by the city, because it had changed. It would be hard not to be impressed by the difference between 1950 and 1980.

KM: There were no park benches in 1950.

RL:  Right, and so she started sending, every once in a while, a little batch of papers. Mainly corrected typescripts, galleys, some correspondence, which relates directly to her work. Eventually I hope we will get her journals. She adapted her journals for articles on the 1968 disturbances in Paris, and I do hope to see more of them.

KM: So there are no letters, no personal papers, mementos?

RL: My impression is that whatever she decides to give us of that kind of material will be very consciously chosen. She’s not just going to scoop everything into boxes and send it. She will direct, in a way, future critical or biographical work on her.

KM: So an archive can be quite diverse. If you have six archives from six writers they could be quite different in composition. What is your impression of Gallant as a personality. She’s directed, careful, controlled, not only in her prose, brilliantly so, but as a personality.  Is she uniform, enigmatic?

RL: I found her fascinating. First of all, physically she’s quite beautiful and obviously was stunning when she was younger. She’s very direct and a bit quirky. She likes to ask questions that catch you slightly off guard.

KM: You’d like that!

RL: Yes, she asked me to lunch one time. Out of nowhere, in general conversation, she asked me, “What had the men of Canada done to women?”

KM: What did you say?

RL:  I said I didn’t feel I could take responsibility for every man in the country.

KM: What did she mean?

RL: She was asking what was wrong with the women. She’d been traveling around on a promotion for one of her books. Macmillan had sent her across the country on planes, trains, and so on, and she’d fallen into conversation with women. She asked them questions about what they did, how they were feeling, and she found most of them terribly depressed. and the cause seemed to be their relationships with men. So she developed this little theory that the men of Canada were oppressing women, in a kind of spiritual way. This was a new concept to me, and certainly the women I know don’t seem very oppressed. I think she was exploring something in her own mind. That’s another impression I have of her, that she was always exploring, thinking about things, and that someday parts of it would emerge, not this conversation particularly, but some aspect of it might very well come out in a short story. That was one of her methods of working; she talked to people; she listened to what they said, but she asked questions that elicited responses she thought would be interesting.

KM: So she’s one of those people who don’t shut the world out, who keep on processing?

RL: That was my impression. She could be great fun, funny, quite witty, very sharp-tongued. I went to a reading with her one time, she was terribly nervous before, although once she started the reading she was fine, and afterward we sat around and drank wine for hours, and she chatted with people, told stories; it was very amusing.  She got to interview [Maurice] Duplessis because she was so gorgeous. No other reporters could get in to a private interview with him. He obviously fancied her. Funny stories, like that.

She was very engaged with the students, with the junior fellows, when she was at Massey College. They were obviously very fond of her, and people talked to her a lot. She lived in college, and people would drop in and see her. I think she was somewhat less impressed with some of the other people she met around the university.

However, she also said she didn’t get any writing done, although when she’d come to be Writer-in-Residence, part of her plan was to finish her Dreyfus book which she’d been working on for years. She found she couldn’t do it, because her time was taken up or broken up. When people sent her things she read them seriously and commented. She took the job of Writer-in-Residence seriously, I think.

KM: Yes, I think she did. One of the writers I’m interested in and whom I’ve interviewed for these programs is Rohinton Mistry.  In fact he got his start the year she was Writer-in-Residence and sent her a story, one of his first, and she sent it to Leon Rooke who then published it in a New Press Anthology. That was perhaps Rohinton Mistry’s first publication, and after that he just took off. Within a few years he had a Penquin collection of stories, and so that was Mavis.

She’s one of the few writers I’ve heard of who has taken the Writer-in-Residence job with great seriousness. People are in and out of that job everywhere. I know Elizabeth Smart had a position out west and I think enjoyed it, but was not engaged in the way Mavis was. I know Graeme Gibson had a Writer-in–Residence position at the University of Waterloo and I understand he wasn’t very much on campus. It’s the kind of job where the writer decides how to do it.

RL: That was the first time Gallant had lived in Canada for any extended period. She is a Canadian citizen and comes back a lot and is very conscious of being Canadian. More of her books are appearing here and she comes for promotional tours as well. But she has chosen to travel.

At the University of Toronto she was here the whole year, so living on campus, was more engaged than someone coming onto a campus once or twice a week.

KM: Have you been to her home in Paris?

RL: I have never visited her, although I would like to. I am going there next month, but it being August I assume, like the rest of the French, she will likely have left town.

KM: I have been to the house of a friend of hers on the edge of the Marais, Joe Plaskett, who is a painter from Vancouver. There was a group of people who emigrated at the same time and Mavis is close to Joe. He lives near the Place des Vosges in a medieval house which is actually two yoked together. I think she lives not far from Joe. For these programs, I have also talked to Virgil Burnett, who’s part of that group of people. People came and went, but Joe and Mavis were two Canadians who stayed and gathered other people around them over the years. Why do you think she stayed in Paris?

RL: I don’t really know except that it suits her. She has, I think, a fairly highly developed sense of the advantages of a certain kind of isolation. If you live somewhere where you are comfortable, and she obviously is in Paris, but it’s not what you grew up with, it’s easier to investigate in a fictional way; it gives a kind of perspective. Most of her stories are set in Europe, often in Italy or France or sometimes Germany. She did publish that volume called Home Truths ( 1981), which was about Canada, but it still had that sense of distance. I think she finds it useful.

I read an article she wrote for a magazine, a description of Paris. It was in a series by various writers describing places they lived. Hers was very evocative, but it was mainly about Paris in the winter. It rains all the time, it’s dark. It’s only light from 9-10 a.m. Then it’s dark from 10-3 p.m. or grey, and then it’s really dark. The impression was of rain dripping on stone, greyness and the river. There are photographs too. There’s something that speaks to her from the city itself. Although I am sure she has been asked why she stays, I have never read or heard the real answer.

mavis gallant 866

KM: Did she not talk about being in exile when you spent all that time with her?

RL: I think she doesn’t consider herself in exile in the normal sense. She just considers herself someone who lives somewhere else, who did it deliberately when she made her career as a writer. She has been publishing primarily in The New Yorker, so her audience has been in the States and in Britain. From the Fifteenth District was reviewed as her emergence in Canada, but her books were not before then published here. The dust jacket quotes all of these Canadian writers saying how wonderful she is, so they all knew about her — George Woodcock, Mordecai Richler, Morley Callaghan, Alice Munro and so on, but nobody else did.

But, of course, that ignores the audience of The New Yorker. She published her first story there, in 1951, I think, and virtually everything she’s written has appeared there since. The audience of The New Yorker is about half a million readers, and it’s international, not just Americans, and a good many Canadians. So in a sense she was recognized in Canada and  it is slightly surprising  that a publisher didn’t pick up her stories and collect them and publish them earlier.

The New Yorker connection is interesting. I have been mulling this over: Are you born a New Yorker writer, or do you develop yourself  in such a way that you’re a natural for The New Yorker. The manuscripts which I have looked at don’t have any evidence of The New Yorker imposing its famous style.

KM: Not from the sheets we have in front of us anyway.

RL: What is the influence of someone like William Maxwell or the other editors at The New Yorker, not just on Gallant but on a whole series of writers?

KM: Alice Munro? Woody Allen?

RL:  That’s right. Every time you read something by them you recognize that it reads like a New Yorker piece.

KM: It’s an important question. Writers perhaps unconsciously adjust for their market. I heard of Mavis Gallant  in ‘63 or ’64. She was introduced to me by Miriam Waddington who was from Montreal and knew Mavis. So I started reading her then, and, of course, I thought of her as a New Yorker writer. I was just a student, and just beginning to read those sorts of magazines. Do you think there is a New Yorker style, which Mavis fits into, or perhaps she has helped to create it, too?

RL: I think both those things are true.  When she sent in her first couple of stories, someone there recognized that here’s someone who writes  the kind of fiction that we’re identified with, that our readers want, and we should seize that, and they did. It is true that there are several writers who are so closely identified with The New Yorker that you don’t see them as publishing anywhere else.

KM: And Alice Munro as well. Is it the condition of alienation, when we think about these stories?

RL: Partly that, alienation often in terms of the stories themselves, in terms of the style. Part of The New Yorker style, to me, is that nothing ends, it’s soft.

KM: I was going to say that they wander off.

RL: That’s right, they sort of stop…

KM: Never mind Aristotle, down with Aristotle…

RL: Certainly Gallant has that, always enigmas at the end, so that it could could either way, and it’s strongly suggested that the way it is going to go is not the nice way.

KM: Something we were talking about earlier is detail. When you think about a New Yorker essay, whether it’s on Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson,  or tomatoes, or the rebuilding of Avery Fisher Hall, any New Yorker essay has more detail than any human being could possibly process. That seems to be to be a keynote of that magazine’s writing. And that also seems to me to be American. Like the social science novel. An American popular genre is so detailed so that people feel they get something for their money. In The New Yorker they get something for the time invested reading. They learn that tomatoes are gas-fired in upper Florida and so on. I think in most New Yorker fiction, including Mavis’s, the detail really serves the end of the story, but it is a feature of that kind of writing.

RL: Yes, sure.

KM: Do you think it is fair to say that’s an American contribution to 20th century writing — detail?

RL: I don’t know.

KM: You don’t have to go on record. You can back out…

RL: I don’t know about that, but the difference between non-fiction and fiction in The New Yorker is not that great. It’s recognizable as New Yorker stuff and her style suits that.

KM: Let’s talk about the two writers, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, who are very different writers, I think. Munro has a tremendous identification with and compassion for her characters. With Gallant there is a distance, she has them on a pin, or is looking through a glass.

RL: I think that’s probably true. With Munro you do feel her engagement with one character or another. With Gallant the relationships are unconsummated, people are observed  but what they are doing with each other often isn’t working either. Yet the descriptions are impressive.


KM: Is there a moment in From the Fifteenth District where characters seem to connect with each other, or with the reader?

RL: In “Potter” they do. The Poles in Paris, like Potter, or Piotr and his cousin, Marek. The relationship is close but they don’t fully connect in the sense that everyone is coming or going. And the people who are really there are always described in terms of hanging around the cafes.

KM: …or the train station…

RL: Being there physically and being somewhere else mentally and spiritually is an aspect of her characters. What’s really going on has only a token amount to do with the physical circumstances. It doesn’t have to be Paris, except that obviously she can describe Paris better because she lives there. But she will describe in great detail small places in Italy, for instance, where presumably she has spent some time as well.

KM: The Italian Riviera, or the point where Italy and France come together, figures in her stories, doesn’t it?

RL: Yes, in fact that’s one of the points that’s made. How can you tell what is Italy and what is France? They speak French, but the signs are in Italian. Right now it’s part of Italy, but about 75 years ago it was part of France, and who knows what it might be in the future. This is part, I suppose, of European alienation. There is a whole series of countries which haven’t always been there in that form. It would be interesting to ask Mavis what she thinks of 1992 and the grand new Europe. I dare say she has some opinions about it.

KM: I’m sure she has opinions. I wonder what she thinks of Mrs. Thatcher!

RL: She does have very strong views about French politics, and I did talk to her a couple times about that, but always her view is a real Canadian connection, which is curious and amusing. She invented a persona for herself, the name I can’t remember, but when she hears something on the radio that involves Canada, or sees something on television, she phones the stations and asks to talk to the producers, and even politicians and sets them straight, as in that’s not what it’s like in Canada, that’s a wrong interpretation, you really should get this right. So, in a way, she’s a kind of unofficial Canadian conscience.

KM: A gazetteer?

RL: Yes. I think she enjoys that a lot and realizes probably that the French don’t listen very carefully. I don’t know that she’s had any real political effect, but it amuses her to correct them about what is really going on. During the 14th  of July parade she was on television with Peter Mansbridge describing it. A friend told me that a float went by that was meant to represent the French colonial period, and Canada had a small part of it, and she said, “That’s not right, it’s the wrong period.” Of course, Canada wasn’t a colony of France at all, and then CBC cut her off. I wish I had heard that comment. I wouldn’t think of Mavis Gallant as someone to describe a parade to you, but it was an inspired choice. I’m sure that what she said, or at least what they let air, was very interesting and pertinent. She observes the French in that way as well. She wrote quite a lot about the school teacher who had an affair with one of her students — was her name Gabrielle Russier, is that right?— she’s also been very much involved in researching a book on Dreyfus.

KM: That Dreyfus project has gone on for more than a decade, hasn’t it?

RL: A long time. It’s been imminent for several years.

CaptureDégradation d’Alfred Dreyfus” from Le Petit Journal, Supplement Illustré no. 217, 1895 via Forward

KM: She’s working on archives, and letters and journals, isn’t she?

RL: And she met the daughter, who might not be alive now, knew her quite well.

KM: Let’s quickly review what happened in the Dreyfus case and try and put it in context. It’s in the 1890s in France and he was drummed out of the army as a Jew and imprisoned.

RL: And Émile Zola took up his case and wrote “J’accuse” and then Dreyfus was brought to trial and was released and then put back in prison.

KM: It was an enormous trial wasn’t it, with many transcripts?


RL: It’s one of those grey scandals which the French cling to forever. A hundred years later, it’s still fresh. It’s been written about many times and there are at least half a dozen books in print.

KM: There’s a long essay by Sartre, and all kinds of people who try to come to terms with this event.

RL: I think to be a respectable intellectual in France, you must. Mavis has new evidence, has seen some new material, which suggests a new interpretation.

KM: Obviously, it’s an ongoing project for her and a sign of her membership  in an international intellectual community, which is also how I see other people’s engagement with the case. Do you think that is her motivation, or could there be more personal reasons for her being involved, interested?

RL: Well, at some basic level, she is doing historical journalism, and she was a journalist.

KM: So she’s not Jewish; she went to a convent school?

RL: In fact, those potted little biographies for her books always start by saying she went to 17 schools. The first one when she was four was a convent, and there were altogether 17 in Montreal and the eastern United States.

KM: Was she kicked out of them?

RL: Next time I see her I’ll ask her, why 17? There must be some story there. Her father moved around? She was a quarrelsome student? She must have approved the figure 17,  because it appears on everything.

KM: There are so many enigmas for me about Mavis Gallant:  the 17 schools, the rootlessness, which is paradoxical as she is very rooted in one city, which didn’t begin as her own, and her seeing herself as a Canadian. Her characters move around, and then there is the very specificity of her details, which contrast with the rootlessness of the feeling in the stories. And that’s true all through the collection From The Fifteenth District. And it is set in a very specific district, the 15th arrondissement. But the stories themselves are set all over Western Europe, and yet that title story is a ghost story, for heaven’s sake, characters don’t even live there. They live in “other space.” So there are all these paradoxes at work.

Obviously, she’s kept on writing and I think she’ll continue to surprise us. If she is engaged with the Dreyfus book and it gets finished, she is not only doing historical journalism but making her mark on intellectual history, which is what the Dreyfus case is really about, isn’t it?

RL: I think that’s probably true. How consciously she approaches that I’m not sure.

KM: I think that’s one thing you feel with Gallant’s work, her tremendous intelligence. You don’t necessarily move toward her, she’s hard on her characters, there’s not immediately a great sympathy, although there is ultimately compassion, and you feel her intelligence, and it’s admirable.

RL:  She makes many people nervous, I think, because she’s very sharp and bright, so people feel a little hesitant about meeting her, about what she’s going to say to them and will they feel they have something silly or stupid. She wouldn’t do that but people think she might. It’s that general feeling that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, that you ought to kind of watch it. When she’s talking to you, she listens carefully, and you need be conscious about what you say. Not because she’s going to write it into a story, but because she’s listening carefully, and she’s critical.

KM: Someone said something similar about Virginia Woolf, whom I’ve always assumed wasn’t critical, but listened very carefully. In Woolf’s time, they would say she was a person who could elicit your darkest secrets, and she would use them. Not against you, but they would be used. In that way she was dangerous, and I would think the same about Gallant. Writers are observers; there’s no doubt about that anyway. But certain writers could elicit your secrets and your wariness could make you blurt out things. And perhaps those things might in the end be used against you.

RL: I’ll always be careful what I say to writers.

KM: I’m delighted to hear that!

The papers Gallant is placing at the Fisher Library are not full of personal details, but you would think so much of the information in her stories comes about through her keeping notebooks about people, and then using these notes later. It’s exciting to think that her work comes out of a kind of memory repository, rather than something else.

RL: Well, she doesn’t keep things for the sake of having 97 boxes. When she gets a letter, I am sure she doesn’t keep it unless it matters.

KM: So the Fisher collection is small but important?

RL: Yes and it has been used and is likely to be used more. There is a book on her.

KM: Janice Kulyk Keefer, Reading Mavis Gallant? I haven’t read it.

RL: Neither have I but we keep track of the people who use the collections and there’s already a whole file folder of people who have looked at her papers for one reason or another.

KM:  So a critic or a student will come and look at the papers, and then they’ll be able to deduce her working method among other things?

RL:  Yes, they might. I think anyone doing anything serious on her would have to be in touch with her, as you wouldn’t find enough in the papers, although it depends on what you are looking for. It’s a conscious archive, which I rather like, because it means a writer has taken some real responsibility rather than leaving it up to a curator or an archivist to decide at some point in the future what is to be saved and so on.

KM: You actually get rid of materials that people give you?

RL: No, no we don’t, but someday someone’s going to have to. The mountain of paper will become overwhelming to the point where someone will have to make real decisions and that probably won’t be me. Every writer varies so much, but it’s interesting, that someone so consciously forms her archive. So her archive is a little bit like her stories.

KM: I was going to say it sounds as if she is all of a piece. She’s a highly conscious and a highly responsible person. That certainly sheds a very important light on her, because I don’t think you know her as conscious or responsible from her stories, so some of these other things are very very important.  Thank you, Richard. I am very much looking forward to talking to Mavis Gallant next.

—Richard Landon & Karen Mulhallen

Richard Landon (1942-2011) was the Director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and Professor of English. He taught courses on aspects of the history of the book and bibliography for many years in the University of Toronto’s Graduate Department of English and the Faculty of Information. Among his publications are Bibliophilia Scholastica Floreat (2005), Ars Medica (2006), “Two Collectors: Thomas Grenville and Lord Amherst of Hackney” in Commonwealth of Books (2007), “The Elixir of Life: Richard Garnett, the British Museum Library, and Literary London” in Literary Cultures and the Material Book (2007), and articles in the History of the Book In Canada (2004-2007).

Karen Mulhallen

Karen Mulhallen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar, a Professor Emeritus of English at Ryerson University and adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto. Douglas Glover edited and wrote an introduction for her book of selected poems Acquainted With Absence and several of her poems have appeared on the pages of Numéro Cinq.





Vol. V, No. 12, December 2014

Vol. V, No. 11, November 2014

Vol. V, No. 10, October 2014

Vol. V, No. 9. September 2014

Vol. V, No. 8, August 2014

Vol. V, No, 7, July 2014

Vol. V, No. 6, June 2014

Vol. V, No. 5, May 2014

Vol. V, No. 4, April 2014

Vol. V, No. 3, March 2014

Vol. V, No. 2, February 2014

Vol. V, No. 1, January 2014



Vol. IV, No. 12, December 2013

Vol. IV, No. 11, November 2013

Vol. IV, No. 10, October 2013

Vol. IV, No. 9. September 2013

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Vol IV, No. 7, July 2013

Vol. IV, No. 6, June 2013

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Vol. IV, No. 4, April 2013

Vol. IV, No. 3, March 2013

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Vol. IV, No. 1, January 2013



Vol. III, No. 12, December 2012

Vol. III, No. 11, November 2012

Vol. III, No. 10, October 2012

Vol. III, No. 9, September  2012

Vol. III, No. 8, August 2012

Vol. III, No. 7, July  2012

Vol. III, No. 6, June 2012

Vol. III, No. 5, May 2012

Vol. III, No. 4, April 2012

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Vol. I, No. 11, December 2010

Vol. I, No. 10, November 2010

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Vol. 1, No. 8, September 2010

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Vol. I, No. 1, February 2010

Sep 272013

I dunno. Sometimes I overshare.

Also, this terse description may be a bit confusing. John Metcalf was a bystander and observer. My argument was with someone else entirely — just in case you thought otherwise.


Well, there was the time I got into a fistfight in the bar at the Frontenac Hotel in Kingston, Ontario, during a conference organized by John Metcalf, Leon Rooke and David Helwig. This was in the early 1990s. I still remember the look on John’s face as the bouncers pulled me away. The next time I was invited back to Kingston, the organizers had to pay the hotel a damage deposit before they could book me a room. Naturally, I expect nothing like this to happen in Vancouver as I have mellowed over the years.

via Douglas Glover | Vancouver Writers Fest.

Mar 152013

Russell Smith photo by jowita bydlowskaAuthor photo by Jowita Bydlowska

Here is a brief jeu d’esprit from the Toronto writer and fashionista Russell Smith whom I met at the now legendary Wild Writers We Have Known conference put on by The New Quarterly in Stratford, Ontario, in September, 2000. I remember it as a gilded occasion: Mark Anthony Jarman was there, as well as Steven Heighton, Elise Levine, Caroline Adderson, Mike Barnes, Leon Rooke and Diane Schoemperlen, all of whom have appeared in Numéro Cinq. John Haney took photographs.[1] And Russell Smith is wild: Among his several works of fiction is the pornographic novel Diana, A Diary in the Second Person which was first published under the pseudonym Diane Savage by Gutter Press and subsequently reprinted by Biblioasis under the author’s own name. He’s also written a book on men’s fashion, Men’s Style: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Dress (2005).

“The Ossington Bus” is an all too brief introduction to Russell Smith’s precise, elegant prose style. Please do stop over the sentences and appraise their condensed, fluid motions. E.g. “We have looked at our watches, looked at our watches and prayed, wept and prayed and looked at our watches.” The story itself is a small gem of an ever so slightly parodic magic realism planted in Toronto’s Little Portugal wherein the oft missing Toronto Transit Commission’s Ossington Avenue bus takes on legendary qualities. I also thought of E. M. Forster and his story “The Celestial Omnibus” when I first read this — Forster’s nostalgia for the magical, especially in his stories, is often overlooked. Russell Smith is careful and charming: his irony never becomes arch and the language, alternating between irony and belief, builds a momentum that magically gives that bus wings at the story’s close.


Why do we wait for the Ossington bus? It never comes. We jam our hands in our pockets, turn up our collars, lean out over the tracks of slush and peer down the hill, and all the way down to the mental hospital is nothing but a wide expanse of empty street. We think that we will see a bus lumbering around the corner from Queen. The wind whips along Dundas and the cars stop and start, grunting. Brass music from the fish shop, twisted by wind.

Inside the cafe on the corner, men sit on metal chairs with their ski-jackets on, drinking beer and looking at the soccer game hanging overhead, the only square of brightness in this window. We imagine that they look out at us stamping our feet and stepping into the traffic to gaze down the empty hill, and they say to one another, “I remember the last time the Ossington bus was seen. My father, just after he arrived from the Azores in 1974, saw it twice. At least he claims he did. It used to come more often then. There was an old man on Shaw, Armando Gomez’s father, who says he saw it three times, as a child, but no-one believes him.”

“I saw it myself,” says an old-timer with a fedora from 1955, a hat he has worn like a sign of conscience every day of his life, a sign of resistance. He is sitting alone. No-one has noticed him. But now everyone turns to look at him. Some of the younger men, at the bar, roll their eyes at each other. He speaks very slowly, in the quiet. He says, “Nineteen eighty-five. I saw it with my own eyes. Clear as day. It came chugging up Ossington, stopped at Dundas. Then it went through the lights. And it stopped at that stop, right outside. People got on. And it took them away.”

There is a silence as the eyes inside the cafe turn to the grimy window, to our dark coats outside, waiting.


We know they are watching us. We look up at the icy sky and close our eyes and try not to think about the time, passing. We have looked at our watches, looked at our watches and prayed, wept and prayed and looked at our watches. We will try not to look at our watches, try not to think about the day elapsing, the day darkening, the businesses closing their doors, the subway we must reach thickening with its red-eyed masses, the women meeting for drinks and coffees in the restaurants below, passing us by while we wait here and watch the old people waddling in and out of the CIBC, walking with canes and walkers. The subway is a mere five stops up, and yet we are as far from it as orbiting moons.

What do we hope for? We know that if the bus comes we will board it and it will smell of heated wet coats, of bags of fried food and the spittle of children, the seats will be stained, runnels of mud will streak the rubber mats, the windows will be sticky. There will be no place to sit. The bus will lurch and sway and rattle, throwing us against the coughing bulk of parkas, slipping on scraps of news. We will be with the lost and hopeless, the lowest. The bus will stop every hundred yards to groan and shift again; it will take too long to get anywhere, it will waste our time.

And yet it will at least take us away from here, lift us up with a hydraulic hiss, higher than the level of the street, flying away. It will advance us to the next place, a completely different place, the next thing we will engage with. It will move us up and on.

We do not know if it will come or not. We wait, flexing up on our toes sometimes to arch our view down the hill, closing our eyes occasionally at the orange sunset over the community centre. Feeling the temperature drop, we wrap our arms, trying to be calm, listening, waiting for its thumping approach, a sound like the beating of wings.

—Russell Smith


Russell Smith was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and grew up in Halifax, Canada. He writes weekly on the arts in the Globe and Mail. His most recent novel, Girl Crazy (HarperCollins Canada), is set in Toronto, where he lives.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The proceedings — fiction, criticism, photographs and panel transcripts — were published in The New Quarterly, Volume XXI, Numbers 2 & 3. On page 350 there is a great John Haney photo of Russell Smith and dg.
Apr 052012

The best novels are like dreams. They come out of the silence of the page like a dream. They structure themselves like dreams, that is, there are clear ways in which the structure of dreams parallels the structure of novels. Like dreams, novels use image patterning as a device for suggesting meaning: image repetition, association, juxtaposition, and splintering (Viktor Shklovsky’s term for the branching pattern created by a repeating image and its associated or split-off elements which also repeat). Like dreams, novels are available to interpretation; the best novels have a central luminous mystery at their core which tempts generations upon generations of critics and readers to find new structures and meanings beyond the surface of the words. And like dreams, novels are built around (and this is explicable in only the vaguest of terms) the recurrence or insistence of desire which, in order to generate plot, must be resisted; the locus or arena of desire and resistance appears again and again with obsessive regularity in novels, an obsessive regularity which, in real life, would seem eccentric if not pathological. In novels, character is perversion, and the novel returns again and again to the animating desire which it must resist to the bitter end or even beyond the end of the words on the page.

—from “Novels and Dreams,” an essay by Douglas Glover in Attack of the Copula Spiders

The Greeks called their novels tales of suffering for love. If they weren’t about suffering for love, they wouldn’t be tales. A story consists of someone wanting something and having trouble getting it. There are no stories about people who start out happy and contented, remain happy and contented throughout, and end up happy and contented. Imagine the phrase “tales of not-suffering for love” or “tales of having fun for love” or “tales of finding pleasure for love.” The difference between pornography and literature is that in pornography everyone has orgasms all the time. There is no gap between desire and consummation. In literature there is always an element of frustration, displacement, delay and incompleteness (even if someone does eventually manage to have an orgasm). Don Quixote is the quintessential novel because it’s about a man in love with a woman who doesn’t exist. At the outset, Cervantes invents the limiting case.

—from The Enamoured Knight

Repetition, as I have said, is also a pattern. But it is a pattern of a different order, perhaps the pattern of patterns. To me, it is the heart of the mystery of art, of novel-writing. Without it, the novel becomes a strung-out plot summary. I have tried to think out why repetition is appealing, why it is aesthetically pleasing as a pure thing. I think there are two reasons, or sorts of reasons. The first is essentially conservative–repetition is allied to memory, to coherence and verisimilitude. The second is biological or procreative or sexual. Repetition creates rhythm which on a biological level is pleasurable in itself, the beating of our hearts, the combers rolling up on a beach, the motion of love. This is the sort of thing Lyotard is talking about when he writes about “intensities” or patterns of intensities in his book Économie Libidinal, or what the Spaniard Madariaga meant when he talked about the “waves of energy” in Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Seville.

—from “The Novel as a Poem” in Notes Home from a Prodigal Son


Here is the performance version of “How to Write a Novel,” the first essay in my new book Attack of the Copula Spiders. I place it here for instructional purposes, also so that I can include it in our growing trove of craft and structure advice The Numéro Cinq Literary Craft Book, which you all should consult from time to time. I gave this talk as part of the Craftwork series at The Center for Fiction in New York, March 14, 2o12.

It’s important to note that “How to Write a Novel” is a fairly stripped down version of the years of thought I have given to writing novels (and stories and essays and, yes, even poems). If you want to get the whole picture to this point, you should read also “The Novel as a Poem” in Notes Home from a Prodigal Son. That book also contains essays on novels by Leonard Cohen, Christa Wolf, Hubert Aquin, and Margaret Atwood, plus an essay on point of view and my pride and joy “Gertrude, or the Postmodern Novel.”

Then you would need to read my book on Cervantes The Enamoured Knight. The first section of the book, “Recovering the Text: Technical and Analytical,” provides a re-reading of Don Quixote and preps you for the sections to follow.  The second section, “Don Quixote and Novel Form,” gives a history of the development of novel form, sorts out the rather confusing array of definitions offered by theorists, and then discusses a set of primary structures: plot, subplot, character grouping and gradation, and novel memory devices (which I have not really touched on elsewhere). The third section, “Night Thoughts of an Insomniac Reader, or Thematic Meditations,” demonstrates how the form itself predisposes the novel to a thematic “basket” of ubiquitous themes which appear in writers as diverse as Joseph Conrad, Cervantes, Jane Austen, and Alice Munro (to name four that come into the discussion).

Finally, in Attack of the Copula Spiders you’ll find not only “How to Write a Novel” (the complete text with sundry examples) but also analyses of novels by Juan Rulfo, Thomas Bernhard, Leon Rooke, and Cees Nooteboom as well as an essay on endings and a meditation on novels and history.

Unfortunately, foresight has been lacking. I haven’t managed to collect all of this material in one place (and that’s mostly because I have been sorting out these ideas for years, decades, often previewing them as lectures at Vermont College of Fine Arts where I teach in the low-residency MFA in Writing program). But here now you have a basic sense of where to find it all.




Capo di tutti capi

Douglas Glover, Theatre Passe MurailleDouglas Glover’s obscurity is legendary; he is mostly known for being unknown. He has been called “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” (Maclean’s Magazine, The National Post). But for sheer over-the-top hyperbole, nothing beats the opening of a recent piece about him in Quill and Quire in Toronto, which elevates his lack of celebrity to the epic: “Certain mysteries abide in this world: the Gordian Knot, the Holy Trinity, and the literary obscurity of Douglas Glover.” Luckily, he owns a dog and is not completely alone in the world. And occasionally someone actually reads what he writes: He has also been called “a master of narrative structure” (Wall Street Journal) and “the mad genius of Can Lit” (Globe and Mail) whose stories are “as radiant and stirring as anything available in contemporary literature” (Los Angeles Review of Books) and whose work “demands comparison to [Cormac] McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, William Faulkner” (Music & Literature). A new story collection, Savage Love, was published in 2013.

Glover is the author of five story collections, four novels, three books of essays, Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, Attack of the Copula Spiders, and The Erotics of Restraint, and The Enamoured Knight, a book about Don Quixote and novel form. His novel Elle won the 2003 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was optioned by Isuma Igloolik Productions, makers of Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner. His story book A Guide to Animal Behaviour was a finalist for the 1991 Governor-General’s Award. His stories have been frequently anthologized, notably in The Best American Short Stories, Best Canadian Stories, and The New Oxford Book of Canadian Stories. He was the subject of a TV documentary in a series called The Writing Life and a collection of critical essays, The Art of Desire, The Fiction of Douglas Glover, edited by Bruce Stone.

Glover has taught at several institutions of high learning but mostly wishes he hadn’t. For two years he produced and hosted The Book Show, a weekly half-hour literary interview program which originated at WAMC in Albany and was syndicated on various public radio stations and around the world on Voice of America. He edited the annual Best Canadian Stories from 1996 to 2006. He has two sons, Jacob and Jonah, who will doubtless turn out better than he did.

See also “Making Friends with a Stranger: Albert Camus’s L’Étranger,” an essay in CNQ:Canadian Notes & Queries; Consciousness & Masturbation: A Note on Witold Gombrowicz’s Onanomaniacal Novel Cosmos,” an essay in 3:AM Magazine; “Pedro the Uncanny: A Note on Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo,” an essay in Biblioasis International Translation Series Online;A Scrupulous Fidelity: Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser,” an essay in The Brooklyn Rail;Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought,” an essay on the history of ideas also in The Brooklyn Rail; and a dozen extremely wise epigrams at Global Brief


Senior Editors


Book Reviews

Jason DeYoungJason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has recently appeared in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, The Fiddleback, New Orleans Review, and Numéro Cinq.



Numéro Cinq at the Movies

R. W. Gray (Numéro Cinq at the Movies) was born and raised on the northwest coast of British Columbia, and received a PhD in Poetry and Psychoanalysis from the University of Alberta in 2003. His most recent book, a short story collection entitled Entropic, won the $25,000 Thomas Raddall Fiction Award in 2016. Additionally, he is the author of Crisp, a short story collection, and two serialized novels in Xtra West magazine and has published poetry in various journals and anthologies, including Arc, Grain, Event, and dANDelion. He also has had ten short screenplays produced, including Alice & Huck and Blink. He currently teaches Film at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton..



Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is the author of Dysfunctional Males, a story collection, and Shetlag: una novela acentuada. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. He tweets at @f_sd.



WoodardBenjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, Spartan, and Numéro Cinq. His reviews and essays have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, Numéro Cinq, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and other fine publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him at


Poetry Editors

aizenberg-thumbnailSusan Aizenberg is the author of three poetry collections: Quiet City (BkMk Press 2015); Muse (Crab Orchard Poetry Series 2002); and Peru in Take Three: 2/AGNI New Poets Series (Graywolf Press 1997) and co-editor with Erin Belieu of The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (Columbia University Press 2001). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, among them The North American Review, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Connotation Press, Spillway, The Journal, Midwest Quarterly Review, Hunger Mountain, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and have been reprinted and are forthcoming in several anthologies, including Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier UP) and Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation (Etruscan). Her awards include a Crab Orchard Poetry Series Award, the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Levis Prize for Muse, a Distinguished Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mari Sandoz Award from the Nebraska Library Association, and a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner award. She can be reached through her website,

gillisSusan Gillis has published three books of poetry, most recently The Rapids (Brick Books, 2012), and several chapbooks, including The Sky These Days (Thee Hellbox Press, 2015) and Twenty Views of the Lachine Rapids (Gaspereau Press, 2012). Volta (Signature Editions, 2002) won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. She is a member of the collaborative poetry group Yoko’s Dogs, whose work appears regularly in print and online, and is collected in Rhinoceros (Gaspereau Press, 2016) and Whisk (Pedlar Press, 2013). Susan divides her time between Montreal and rural Ontario..


Managing Editor.

Deirdre thumbnailDeirdre Baker is a freelance web and copy editor living in Toronto. She worked for nearly three decades at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, most recently as manager of the Legislature’s website and intranet. After years of bills, proceedings, debates, policies, and procedures, she is delighted to finally have something interesting to read for work.




Chief Technical Officer/Internet Security

Jonah Glover is a twenty-three-year-old human male. Jonah was hired into a technical role despite a long history of shoving chalk into the Glover family VCR. His tenure as CTO is a brazen act of nepotism by DG, so he says. In truth, he has rescued the magazine from malware attacks and hosting issues over and over again. He also designed the logo (many years ago). He works as a software engineer in Seattle and is completing a degree at the University of Waterloo.



Contributing Editors.

Riiki DucornetThe author of nine novels, three collections of short fiction, two books of essays and five books of poetry, Rikki Ducornet has received both a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award For Fiction. She has received the Bard College Arts and Letters award and, in 2008, an Academy Award in Literature. Her work is widely published abroad. Recent exhibitions of her paintings include the solo show Desirous at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2007, and the group shows: O Reverso Do Olhar in Coimbra, Portugal, in 2008, and El Umbral Secreto at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, in 2009. She has illustrated books by Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Coover, Forest Gander, Kate Bernheimer, Joanna Howard and Anne Waldman among others. Her collected papers including prints and drawings are in the permanent collection of the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Santiago Chile, The McMaster University Museum, Ontario, Canada, and The Biblioteque Nationale, Paris.


Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

HeadsJulie Larios is the author of four books for children: On the Stairs (1995), Have You Ever Done That? (named one of Smithsonian Magazine’s Outstanding Children’s Books 2001), Yellow Elephant (a Book Sense Pick and Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book, 2006) and Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures (shortlisted for the Cybil Award in Poetry, 2008). For five years she was the Poetry Editor for The Cortland Review, and her poetry for adults has been published by The Atlantic Monthly, McSweeney’s, Swink, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Field, and others. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, and a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship. Her work has been chosen for The Best American Poetry series by Billy Collins (2006) and Heather McHugh (2007) and was performed as part of the Vox series at the New York City Opera (2010). Recently she collaborated with the composer Dag Gabrielson and other New York musicians, filmmakers and dancers on a cross-discipline project titled 1,2,3. It was selected for showing at the American Dance Festival (International Screendance Festival) and had its premiere at Duke University on July 13th, 2013.

Sydney Lea2Sydney Lea is the former Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-2015). He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012, and Skyhorse Publications  released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife in 2013. In 2015 he published a non-fiction collection, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long (many of the essays appeared first on Numéro Cinq). His twelfth poetry collection, No Doubt the Nameless, was published this spring by Four Way Books.


Special Correspondents


Victoria Best small photoVictoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (


Jeff BurseyJeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His forthcoming book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Garvin thumbnailGary Garvin lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.

Genese Grill

Genese Grill is an artist, translator, writer, and cultural conspirator living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’ (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of a collection of Robert Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (Contra Mundum, 2015). She is currently working on completing a collection of essays exploring the tension between spirit and matter in contemporary culture and a room-sized, illuminated, accordion book inscribed with one of the essays from the collection, along with many other fanatical projects. You can find Genese online at


JasonJason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.



Bruce Stone4

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he edited a great little book of essays on Douglas Glover’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His own essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction, Los Angeles Review of Books, F. Scott Fitzgerald Review and Salon. His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. He currently teaches writing at UCLA.



Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically. She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards. Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.



Production Editors

Alyssa green backgroundAlyssa Colton has a PhD in English with creative dissertation from the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her fiction has been published in The Amaranth Review and Women Writers. Her essays have appeared in Literary Arts Review, Author Magazine, Mothering, Moxie: For Women Who Dare, Iris: A Journal about Women, and on WAMC: Northeast Public Radio. Alyssa has taught classes in writing, literature, and theater at the University at Albany, the College of St. Rose, and Berkshire Community College and blogs about writing at abcwritingediting.

Nowick GrayNowick Gray writes fiction, essays and creative nonfiction that likes to bend boundaries and confound categories. He also works as a freelance copy editor and enjoys playing African drums. Having survived American suburbs, the Quebec Arctic and the BC wilderness, Nowick is now based in Victoria, frequenting tropical locations in winter months..


Nic Leigh has had work published in Juked, The Collagist, UNSAID, Atticus Review, Requited, Gobbet, and DIAGRAM. A chapbook, Confidences, won the Cobalt/Thumbnail Flash Fiction contest and is forthcoming from Cobalt Press. Leigh is also a fiction reader for Guernica.



CaptureKathryn Para is an award-winning, multi-genre writer with a MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in Grain, Room of One’s Own, Geist, Sunstream, and Vancouver Review. She is the 2013 Winner of Mother Tongue Publishing’s Search for the Great BC Novel Contest with, Lucky,  her first novel, which was also shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2014. Her stage play, Honey, debuted in 2004. She has also written, directed and produced short films.

Daniel Davis Wood is a writer based in Birmingham, England. His debut novel, Blood and Bone, won the 2014 Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia. He is also the author of Frontier Justice, a study of the influence of the nineteenth century frontier on American literature, and the editor of a collection of essays on the African American writer Edward P. Jones. He can be found online at



Assistant to the Editor


mary-brindley2Mary Brindley is a Vermont-born copywriter living in Boston. A recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she writes creative nonfiction, performs improv, and is about to move to London.







Anu2A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at


dylanbrennan-croppedCurrently based in Mexico City, Dylan Brennan writes poetry, essays and memoirs. His debut collection, Blood Oranges, for which he won The Patrick Kavanagh Award runner-up prize, was published by The Dreadful Press in 2014. His co-edited volume of academic essays Rethinking Juan Rulfo’s Creative World: Prose, Photography, Film is available now from Legenda Books (2016). In addition to his work as Mexico Curator for Numéro Cinq, he regularly contributes to the online Mexican literary site Portal de Letras. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan.

jeremy brungerJeremy Brungeroriginally from Tennessee, is a writer attending a graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests trend toward the Marxian: how capital transforms us, abuses us, mocks us. His writing on philosophy and politics has been featured on Truthout, The Hampton Institute, and 3 AM Magazine and his poetry has appeared in the Chiron Review and Sibling Rivalry Press. He can be contacted at


Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology, The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He helps edit the Wrath-Bearing Tree and is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.



Laura Michele Diener author photoLaura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine..



Daniel Green is a writer and literary critic whose essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in a variety of publications. He is the author of Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism (2016).




A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.

OgburnCarolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and NC School of the Arts, she writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.

Paddy Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He just graduated from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and will begin work on an MFA at the University of Saskatchewan this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”


Frank Richardson lives in Houston where he teaches English and Humanities. He received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.




Mark SampsonMark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Natalia SarkissianNatalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She was an editor and a contributor at Numéro Cinq from 2010-2017.



Joe SchreiberJoseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s] and The Scofield. He tweets @roughghosts.




captureDorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at





Authors & Artists of Numéro Cinq


Ryem Abrahamson • Abdallah Ben Salem d’Aix • Alejandro de Acosta • Caroline Adderson • José Eduardo Agualusa • Susan Aizenberg • Ramón Alejandro • Taiaike Alfred • Gini Alhadeff • Abigail Allen • Steve Almond • Darran Anderson • Trevor Anderson • Jorge Carrera Andrade • Ralph Angel • A. Anupama • Guillaume Apollinaire • Jamaluddin Aram • Fernando Aramburu • Louis Armand • Melissa Armstrong • Tammy Armstrong • Glenn Arnold • Miguel Arteta • Adam Arvidson • Nick Arvin • Kim Aubrey • Shushan Avagyan • Steven Axelrod • Elizabeth Babyn • J. Karl Bogartte • Louise Bak • Bonnie Baker • Sybil Baker • Martin Balgach • Brandon Ballengée • Zsófia Bán • Phyllis Barber • John Banville • Byrna Barclay • Mike Barnes • Stuart Barnes • Kevin Barry • Donald Bartlett • Todd Bartol • John Barton • Sierra Bates • Svetislav Basarav • Charles Baudelaire • Tom Bauer • Melissa Considine Beck • Joshua Beckman • Laura Behr • Gerard Beirne • Amanda Bell • Ian Bell • Madison Smartt Bell • Dodie Bellamy • Joe David Bellamy • Leonard Bellanca • Russell Bennetts • Brianna Berbenuik • Samantha Bernstein • Michelle Berry • Jen Bervin • Victoria Best • Darren Bifford • Nathalie Bikoro • Eula Biss • Susan Sanford Blades • François Blais • Clark Blaise • Denise Blake • Vanessa Blakeslee • Rimas Blekaitis • Liz Blood • Harold Bloom • Ronna Bloom • Michelle Boisseau • Stephanie Bolster • John Bolton • Jody Bolz • Danila Botha • Danny Boyd • Donald Breckenridge • Dylan Brennan • Mary Brindley • Stephen Brockbank • Fleda Brown • Laura Catherine Brown • Nickole Brown • Lynne M. Browne • Julie Bruck • Jeremy Brunger • Michael Bryson • John Bullock •  Bunkong Tuon • Diane Burko • Jeff Bursey • Peter Bush • Jane Buyers • Jowita Bydlowska • Mary Byrne • Agustín Cadena • David Caleb • Chris Campanioni • Jane Campion • J. N. F. M. à Campo • Jared Carney • David Carpenter • Michael Carson •  Mircea Cărtărescu • Ricardo Cázares • Daniela Cascella • Blanca Castellón • Michael Catherwood • Anton Chekhov • David Celone • Corina Martinez Chaudhry • Kelly Cherry • Peter Chiykowski • Linda E. Chown • S. D. Chrostowska • Steven Church • Nicole Chu • Jeanie Chung • Alex Cigale • Sarah Clancy • Jane Clarke • Sheela Clary • Christy Clothier • Carrie Cogan • Ian Colford • Zazil Alaíde Collins • Tim Conley • Christy Ann Conlin • John Connell • Terry Conrad • Allan Cooper • Robert Coover • Cody Copeland • Sean Cotter • Cheryl Cowdy • Mark Cox • Dede Crane • Lynn Crosbie • Elsa Cross • S.D. Chrostowska Roger Crowley • Alan Crozier • Megan Cuilla • Alan Cunningham • Paula Cunningham • Robert Currie • Nathan Currier • Paul M. Curtis • Trinie Dalton • J. P. Dancing Bear • Lydia Davis • Taylor Davis-Van Atta • Robert Day • Sion Dayson • Martin Dean • Patrick Deeley • Katie DeGroot • Christine Dehne • Nelson Denis • Theodore Deppe • Tim Deverell • Jon Dewar • Jason DeYoung • Susanna Fabrés Díaz • Laura Michele Diener • Anne Diggory • Mary di Michele • Jeffrey Dodd • Anthony Doerr • Mary Donovan • Steve Dolph • Han Dong • Erika Dreifus • Jennifer duBois • Patricia Dubrava • Rikki Ducornet • Timothy Dugdale • Ian Duhig • Gregory Dunne • Denise Evans Durkin • Nancy Eimers • Jason Eisener • John Ekman • Okla Elliot • Shana Ellingburg • Susan Elmslie •  Paul Eluard • Josh Emmons • Mathias Énard • Marina Endicott • Sebastian Ennis • Benjamin Evans • Kate Evans •  Cary Fagan • Richard Farrell • Kinga Fabó • Kathy Fagan • Jared Daniel Fagen • Tom Faure • David Ferry • George Fetherling • Kate Fetherston • Laura Fine-Morrison •  Patrick Findler • Melissa Fisher • Cynthia Flood • Stanley Fogel • Eric Foley • Larry Fondation • Paul Forte • Mark Foss • Tess Fragoulis • Anne Francey • Danielle Frandina • Jean-Yves Fréchette • Rodrigo Fresán • Abby Frucht • Simon Frueland • Kim Fu • Mark Frutkin • Róbert Gál • Mia Gallagher •  Mavis Gallant • Andrew Gallix • Eugene K. Garber • Rosanna Garguilo • Gary Garvin • William Gass • Bill Gaston • Lise Gaston • Noah Gataveckas • Jim Gauer • Connie Gault • Edward Gauvin • Joël Gayraud • Charlie Geoghegan-Clements • Greg Gerke •  Karen Gernant • Chantal Gervais • Marty Gervais • William Gillespie • Susan Gillis • Estelle Gilson • Nene Giorgadze • Renee Giovarelli • Jody  Gladding • Jill Glass • Douglas Glover • Jacob Glover • Jonah Glover • Douglas Goetsch • Rigoberto González • Georgi Gospodinov • Alma Gottlieb • John Gould • Wayne Grady • Philip Graham • Richard Grant • Nowick Gray • R. W. Gray • Áine Greaney • Brad Green • Daniel Green • Henry Green • Catherine Greenwood • T. Greenwood • Darryl Gregory • Walker Griffy • Genese Grill • Rodrigo Gudiño • Genni Gunn • Richard Gwyn • Gabor G. Gyukics • Daniel Hahn • Donald Hall • Phil Hall • Nicky Harmon • Kate Hall • Susan Hall • Jane Eaton Hamilton • Elaine Handley • John Haney • Wayne J. Hankey • Julian Hanna • Jesus Hardwell • Jennica Harper • Elizabeth Harris • Meg Harris • Kenneth J. Harrison, Jr. • Richard Hartshorn • William Hathaway • Václav Havel • John Hawkes • Sheridan Hay • Bill Hayward • Hugh Hazelton • Jeet Heer • Steven Heighton • Lilliana Heker • Natali e Helberg • Olivia Hellewell • David Helwig • Maggie Helwig • Robin Hemley • Stephen Henighan • Claire Hennessy • Kay Henry • Julián Herbert • Sheila Heti • Darren Higgins • Tomoé Hill • Anne Hirondelle • Bruce Hiscock • H. L. Hix • Godfrey Ho •dee Hobsbawn-Smith • Andrej Hočevar • Jack Hodgins • Tyler Hodgins • Noy Holland • Greg Hollingshead • Dan Holmes • Cynthia Holz • Amber Homeniuk • Drew Hood • Bernard Hœpffner • Kazushi Hosaka • Gregory Howard • Tom Howard • Ray Hsu • David Huddle • Nicholas Humphries • Cynthia Huntington • Christina Hutchings • Matthew Hyde • Joel Thomas Hynes • Angel Igov • Ann Ireland • Agri Ismaïl • Mary Kathryn Jablonski • Richard Jackson • J. M. Jacobson • Fleur Jaeggy • Matthew Jakubowski • A. D. Jameson • Mark Anthony Jarman • David Jauss • Amanda Jernigan • Anna Maria Johnson • Steven David Johnson • Bill Johnston • Ben Johnstone • Cynan Jones • Julie Jones  • Shane Jones • Pierre Joris • Gunilla Josephson • Gabriel Josipovici • Miranda July • Adeena Karasick • Wong Kar-Wai • Maggie Kast • Elizabeth Woodbury Kasius • Allison Kaufman • Aashish Kaul • Allan Kausch • John Keeble • Richard Kelly Kemick • Dave Kennedy • Maura Kennedy • Timothy Kercher • Jacqueline Kharouf • Anna Kim • Patrick J. Keane • Rosalie Morales Kearns • John Kelly • Victoria Kennefick • Besik Kharanauli • Daniil Kharms • Sean Kinsella • Rauan Klassnik • Lee Klein • Karl Ove Knausgaard • Montague Kobbé • James Kochalka • Wayne Koestenbaum • Ani Kopaliani • Jan Kounen • Lawrence Krauss • Fides Krucker • Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer • Anu Kumar • Sonnet L’Abbé • Yahia Lababidi • Andrea Labinger • M. Travis Lane • Zsolt Láng • Julie Larios • Mónica Lávin • Evan Lavender-Smith • Bruno LaVerdiere • Sophie M. Lavoie • Mark Lavorato • Daniel Lawless • Sydney Lea • Ang Lee • Whitney Lee • Diane Lefer • Shawna Lemay • J. Robert Lennon • Kelly Lenox • Giacomo Leopardi • Ruth Lepson • María Jesús Hernáez Lerena • Naton Leslie • Edouard Levé • Roberta Levine • Samuel Ligon • Erin Lillo • Paul Lindholdt • Leconte de Lisle • Gordon Lish • Yannis Livadas • Billie Livingston • Anne Loecher • Dave Lordan • Bojan Louis • Denise Low • Lynda Lowe • Jason Lucarelli • Zachary Rockwell Ludington • Sheryl Luna • Mark Lupinetti • Jeanette Lynes • Joanne Lyons • Andrew MacDonald • Toby MacDonald • Alexander MacLeod • Patrick Madden • John Madera • Randall A. Major • Grant Maierhofer • Keith Maillard • Mary Maillard • Edward Maitino • Rohan Maitzen • Augustín Fernández Mallo • Charlotte Mandell • Louise Manifold • Jonathan Marcantoni • Philip Marchand • Micheline Aharonian Marcom • Vincent Marcone • Josée Marcotte • Julie Marden • Jill Margo • Dave Margoshes • Nicole Markotić • China Marks • André Marois • Jennifer Marquart • Toni Marques • Lucrecia Martel • Deborah Martens • Casper Martin • Cynthia Newberry Martin • Harry Marten • Rebecca Martin • Rick Martin • Ilyana Martinez • Michael Martone • Nicola Masciandaro • Momina Masood • Brook Matson • Melissa Matthewson • Lucy M. May • Stephen May • Micheline Maylor • Marilyn McCabe • Kate McCahill • Thomas McCarthy • Jaki McCarrick • Sharon McCartney • Clint McCown • Margie McDonald • Joseph McElroy • Cassidy McFadzean • Afric McGlinchy • rob mclennan • Paul McMahon • Ross McMeekin • Eoin McNamee • Paul McQuade • Zoë Meager • Ruth Meehan • Court Merrigan • Erica Mihálycsa • Joe Milan • Chris Milk • Billy Mills • Robert Miner • Erika Mihálycsa • Eugene Mirabelli • Rossend Bonás Miró • Salvador Díaz Mirón • Mark Jay Mirsky • Peter Mishler • Michelle Mitchell-Foust • Brenda McKeon • Ariane Miyasaki • Eric Moe • Susie Moloney • Quim Monzó • Jung Young Moon • Jacob McArthur Mooney • Martin Mooney • Gary Moore • Steven Moore • k. a. Moritz •  Adam Morris • Keith Lee Morris • Garry Thomas Morse • Erin Morton • Diane Moser • Sarah Moss•  Warren Motte • Horacio Castellanos Moya • Guilio Mozzi • Greg Mulcahy • Karen Mulhallen • Gwen Mullins • Hilary Mullins • Andres Muschietti • Robert Musil • Jack Myers • Jean-Luc Nancy • John Nazarenko • David Need • Rik Nelson • Pierre Nepveu • Joshua Neuhouser • Nezahualcóyótl • Levi Nicholat • Nuala Ní Chonchúir • Lorinne Niedecker • Doireann Ní Ghríofa • Christopher Noel • João Gilberto Noll • Lindsay Norville • Franci Novak • Margaret Nowaczyk • Masande Ntshanga • Michael Oatman • Gina Occhiogrosso • Carolyn Ogburn • Timothy Ogene • Kristin Ohman • Megan Okkerse • Susan Olding • Óscar Oliva • Robin Oliveira • Lance Olsen • William Olsen • Barrett Olson-Glover • JC Olsthoorn • Ondjaki • Chika Onyenezi • Patrick O’Reilly • Kay O’Rourke • David Ishaya Osu • John Oughton • Kathy Page • Victoria Palermo • Benjamin Paloff • Yeniffer Pang-Chung • Kathryn Para • Alan Michael Parker • Lewis Parker • Jacob Paul • Cesar Pavese • Keith Payne • Gilles Pellerin • Paul Perilli • Martha Petersen • Pamela Petro • Paul Pines • Pedro Pires • Álvaro Pombo • Jean Portante • Garry Craig Powell • Alison Prine • Sean Preston • John Proctor • Tracy Proctor • Dawn Promislow • Emily Pulfer-Terino • Jennifer Pun • Lynne Quarmby • Donald Quist • Leanne Radojkovich • Dawn Raffel • Heather Ramsay • Rein Raud • Michael Ray • Hilda Raz • Victoria Redel • Kate Reuther • Julie Reverb • Shane Rhodes • Adrian Rice • Matthew Rice • Jamie Richards • Barbara Richardson • Frank Richardson • Mary Rickert • Brendan Riley • Sean Riley • Rainer Maria Rilke • Maria Rivera • Mark Reamy • Nela Rio • David Rivard • Isandra Collazo Rivera • Mary François Rockcastle • Angela Rodel • Johannah Rodgers • Pedro Carmona Rodríguez • Ricardo Félix Rodriguez • Jeanne Rogers • Matt Rogers • Lisa Roney • Leon Rooke • Marilyn R. Rosenberg • Rob Ross • Jess Row • Shambhavi Roy • Mary Ruefle • Chris Russell • Laura-Rose Russell • Ethan Rutherford • Ingrid Ruthig • Tatiana Ryckman • Mary H. Auerbach Rykov •  Umberto Saba • Juan José Saer • Stig Sæterbakken • Trey Sager • Andrew Salgado • José Luis Sampedro • Cynthia Sample • Mark Sampson • Jean-Marie Saporito • Maya Sarishvilli • Natalia Sarkissian • Dušan Šarotar • Paul Sattler • Sam Savage • Igiaba Scego • Michael Schatte • Boel Schenlaer • Bradley Schmidt • Elizabeth Schmuhl • Diane Schoemperlen • Joseph Schreiber • Steven Schwartz • Sophfronia Scott • Sarah Scout • Fernando Sdrigotti • Sea Wolf • Mihail Sebastian • Jessica Sequeira • Adam Segal • Mauricio Segura • Shawn Selway • Sarah Seltzer • Maria Sledmere • K. E. Semmel • Robert Semeniuk • Ivan Seng • Pierre Senges • Shelagh Shapiro • Mary Shartle • Eamonn Sheehy • David Shields • Mahtem Shifferaw • Betsy Sholl • Viktor Shklovsky • David Short • Jacob Siefring • Germán Sierra • Eleni Sikelianos • Paul-Armand Silvestre • Goran Simić • James Simmons • Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons  • Thomas Simpson • George Singleton • Taryn Sirove • Richard Skinner •  SlimTwig • Ben Slotsky • Ariel Smart • Jordan Smith • Kathryn Smith • Maggie Smith • Michael V. Smith • Russell Smith • John Solaperto • Glen Sorestad • Stephen Sparks • D. M. Spitzer • Matthew Stadler • Erin Stagg • Albena Stambolova • Domenic Stansberry • Maura Stanton • Andrzej Stasiuk • Lorin Stein • Mary Stein • Pamela Stewart • Samuel Stolton • Bianca Stone • Bruce Stone • Nathan Storring • John Stout • Darin Strauss • Marjan Strojan • Dao Strom • Cordelia Strube • Dorian Stuber • Andrew F. Sullivan • Spencer Susser • Lawrence Sutin • Terese Svoboda • Gladys Swan • Paula Swicher • George Szirtes • Javier Taboada • Antonio Tabucchi • Zsuzsa Takács • Emili Teixidor • Habib Tengour • Leona Theis • This Is It Collective • Dylan Thomas • Elizabeth Thomas • Hugh Thomas • Lee D. Thompson • Melinda Thomsen • Lynne Tillman • Jean-Philippe Toussaint • Joyce Townsend • Jamie Travis • Julie Trimingham • Ingrid Valencia • Valentin Trukhanenko • Marina Tsvetaeva • Tom Tykwer •  Leslie Ullman • Kali VanBaale • Felicia Van Bork • Will Vanderhyden • Charlie Vázquez • Manuel de Jesus Velásquez Léon • S. E. Venart • Rich Villar • Adèle Van Reeth • Nance Van Winckel • Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin • Katie Vibert • Robert Vivian • Liam Volke • Laura Von Rosk • Wendy Voorsanger • Miles Waggener • Catherine Walsh • Joanna Walsh • Wang Ping • Paul Warham • Laura K. Warrell • Brad Watson • Richard Weiner • Roger Weingarten • Tom Pecore Weso • Summar West • Adam Westra • Haijo Westra • Darryl Whetter • Chaulky White • Curtis White • Derek White • Mary Jane White •  Diana Whitney • Dan Wilcox • Cheryl Wilder • Tess Wiley • Myler Wilkinson • Diane Williams • Deborah Willis • Eliot Khalil Wilson • Donald Winkler • Colin Winette • Dirk Winterbach • Ingrid Winterbach • Tiara Winter-Schorr • Quintan Ana Wiskwo • David Wojahn • Macdara Woods • Ror Wolf • Benjamin Woodard • Angela Woodward • Russell Working • Liz Worth • Robert Wrigley • Xu Xi • Can Xue •  Jung Yewon •  Chen Zeping • David Zieroth • Deborah Zlotsky

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Jul 172011

Here’s another new story by dg, just out in the Summer Fiction Issue of The Fiddlehead, the venerable Canadian literary magazine now edited by Mark Anthony Jarman. It’s an amazing issue that includes, besides dg’s “The Lost Language of Ng,” new stories by Clark Blaise, Elisabeth Harvor, Leon Rooke, Bill Gaston and Katherine Govier (Jarman, Rooke, Gaston and Blaise have all been published at NC—see the fiction contents page at right).

This year’s Summer Fiction Issue makes me feel guilty; it may be our best ever, our most vigourous, yet the issue came together so easily, all these fine stories seemed to gather, like a party of friends or family that happens without effort on the part of any organizer. So I have an uneasy feeling that I’m forgetting something or someone or that the egg salad will poison the kingdom; surely creation should be more difficult than this. —Mark Anthony Jarman


The Lost Language of Ng

By Douglas Glover

According to the Maya, their grandfathers, the Ng, refused to assimilate with later civilizations but rather retreated, after a period of decadence and decline, into the southern jungles whence they had emerged. They are rumoured to be living there still, a hermetic and retired existence, keeping the Secret Names in their hearts, playing their sacred ball game, and copulating with their women to inflate the world skin bladder and supply the cosmos with ambient energy, the source of all life.

The last known speaker of the language of the ancient race of Ng passed quietly in his bed at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles where he had been flown the week before for emergency surgery. The cause of death was listed as “massive organ failure.” He was ninety-two years old, according to estimates, though he himself claimed to be 148. He went by the name of Trqba, though he insisted this wasn’t his real name; it was “my name for the outlanders.” His real name, Trqba told researchers, was a secret, a secret so mysterious and terrible that were he to utter the name the world would end the instant his breath stopped on the last vowel of the last syllable.

The Ng are believed to have been a proto-Mayan people who emerged, somewhat mysteriously, from the jungles south of the Yucatan 1,000 years before the birth of Christ and established regional hegemony over the inhabitants of the dry central plains, impoverished tribes who lived by eating insects and grubbing for roots, given to war and venery but incompetent at both, according to Trqba (see C. V. Panofsky: “An Account of the Ng Creation Epic” Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1932). A carved stele excavated at the ancient Ng capital, long concealed beneath temple ruins, depicts the dramatic emergence of the Ng people, their great tattooed war god ______ stepping naked from behind a tree, brandishing a cucumber (or boomerang; listed as “unidentifiable” elsewhere) in his hand, his erect penis dripping blood (according to Trqba; however, according to Giambattista et al., 1953, possibly water, sweat, urine, semen, or “unidentified fluid”) on a row of diminutive, dolorous, and emaciated natives who are about to have their limbs severed (see Rich Farrell: “Ng Stele Recounts Imperial Conquest” National Geographic, 1951). The name of the Ng war god is lost because to utter even one of the 18 divine dipthongs would have meant the sudden and cataclysmic end of life on earth. But Trqba (see Trilby Hawthorn: “New Light on the Ng, a Jungle Romance” People, 2009) said that the Ng referred to him in conversation using conventional epithets such as Snake or My Girl’s Delight.

Soon after migrating out of the jungle, the Ng invented canals, roads, terraced agriculture, pyramids (prototypes of the stepped Mayan E type, aligned with the solstice and equinox), cannibalism, and the mass sacrifice of captured enemy maidens (also, poss. the wheel, the automobile, and an early computer-like device; see Von Daniken, 1964; Von Daniken believed the Ng were extra-terrestrials from the planet Cephhebox). They built immense cities with central plazas surrounded by the usual towering stone temples and played a peculiar version of the Meso-American ball game at the end of which the winners would be bludgeoned with gorgeously carved obsidian death mauls–the losers would become kings and nobles. Since no one wanted to win (especially in the Age of Decadence when the Ng empire went into precipitate decline–between the years 7 Narthex and 27 Px on the Ng calendar), in practice the Ng ball game went on forever. Players would grow feeble, die and be replaced by younger men who, in turn, would be replaced, and so on. (See Proctor: “The Final 16, Ritual Roots of American College Basketball” Harper’s, 2001.)

According to Trqba, the ancient Ng came to believe that the sacred ball game generated a spiritual current or life force (analogous to the Chinese concept of Li; see R.V. Hemlock: “The Ng Generator, Prehistoric Experiments in Conductivity” Popular Mechanics, 1955) which kept the world dome inflated (like a skin bladder or inflatable beach ball, a curiously foundational concept in the Ng metaphysics) and animated all living things. If the Ng heroes–oiled, naked, emaciated, arthritic, toothless, and decrepit–ever ceased their listless ebb and flow upon the court, the world would end catastrophically. (For the ancient Ng, it seems, time was equivalent to constant motion with no linear progression, something like treading water or jogging on the spot; see Larios: Changeless Change, The Ng Enigma of Time, Oxford University Press, 1999.) Though he claimed to be the last of the Ng, Trqba paradoxically seemed to believe that somewhere, deep in the jungle, on a rocky, weed-strewn court hidden by the over-arching green canopy, men and boys, lost tribal remnants or even spectral reanimates, still played the ancient game, the score forever tied at 0-0.



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Well-known for being intellectual and deep, in other words obscure.

Globe and Mail

Always a must-read.

—Two Lines Press

Holy shit!  This looks great!  Even the fine print (I always read credits at movies too).

—a reader

I think it looks spectacular! Numéro Cinq is one handsome webzine…

—a reader

Thanks so much for doing a great journal. Folks are a-buzz about it.
—a reader

Must read with coffee & rejoice that NC continually makes neurons fire and leaves readers a little smarter than before.

—another reader

…yesterday was the first time I looked at N.Cinq in a while, not because it isn’t great which it is but because it makes my ambition stand up and scream and on days when I have so much else to do (most days now that it’s summer) this is like eating something really good in small spoonfuls, some sugar, some fire, mostly fire.

— yet another reader

Well, I live by myself on a rock in the middle of the woods, so you’ve elevated the level of discourse for one person, anyway. I don’t even have a dog to converse with any more.

— even again another reader

Humanity is being preserved at NC, along with literature. (Just saw Court’s piece.)

—a reader

Very cool place.  Easy-going but chewy, dense stuff.  Perfect mix I think.   I’m apt to hang out a bit more often.  I just wish it served drinks….

—a reader!!!!

I love how it carries a conversation in a dark house, voices popping up from various corners, passing thought threads here and there. And I love how it carries back through you, too. Like some strange heartbeat that you pulse out, but returns to give you something in response.

— incredible as it seems, another reader


Numéro Cinq started January 11, 2010, as…

a reading, discussion and resource site for a small group of Douglas Glover‘s friends and writing students. It morphed into something monstrous, tenticulate, multiform and quite possibly (gasp) alive!

In its 7 1/2 years as a going concern, the magazine published a stellar array of new and known (international, award-winning) writers including among others, from Canada, Jowita Bydlowska, Lynn Coady, Leon Rooke, Diane Schoemperlen, Mavis Gallant, Julie Trimingham, Bill Gaston, Sheila Heti, Mark Anthony Jarman, Caroline Adderson, Amanda Jernigan, Ann Ireland, David Helwig, Phil Hall, Cynthia Flood, Catherine Greenwood, Julie Bruck, Sharon McCartney, Steven Heighton, and Jack Hodgins; from the U.S., Rikki Ducornet, Curtis White, Lance Olsen, Lydia Davis, Noy Holland, Greg Mulcahy, Madison Smartt Bell, Victoria Redel, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Joseph McElroy, Donald Hall, David Ferry, Steve Almond, Mary Ruefle, Keith Lee Morris, Darin Strauss, David Shields, Robert Wrigley. Anthony Doerr, Brad Watson, Bianca Stone, Robert Wrigley, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Dawn Raffel, and Lynne Tillman; from Ireland and the UK, Gabriel Josipovici, George Szirtes, Andrew Gallix, Kevin Barry, Julie Reverb, John MacKenna, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, John Kelly, Doireann Ni Griofa; plus work in translation by Viktor Shkolvsky, Mauricio Segura, Daniil Kharms, Julián Herbert, Mircea Cărtărescu, Álvaro Pombo, Quim Monzó, Juan José Saer, Anton Chekhov, Mihail Sebastian, Giacomo Leopardi, Habib Tengour, Besik Kharanauli, Rilke, Mathias Énard and many others. We’ve published novellas, entire books, plays, poems, translations, fiction, nonfiction, sermons, criticism, memoirs, music, art work, hybrid art, conceptual art, provocative graphics.

And this is not to forget our intrepid band of NC staffers, contributors and contributing editors, all convicted felons of the literary type, dedicated artists fast making a name for themselves in the brash new digital universe.

The Name

The name for the magazine came from DG’s short story “The Obituary Writer” in which story the hero, based loosely on the author as a young newspaperman, harasses a distraught neighbour who lives in the apartment across the hall by making loud noises in the night and pretending to be a member of a sinister terrorist group called Numéro Cinq.

Sgt. Pye evicts Earl Delamare. It’s my fault, too, because I was taunting Earl, playing on his fantasies. It’s possible I have driven him mad. One night he came to my door, first listening, then mumbling, then beginning his litany of wild accusations. Instead of responding with my usual silence, I put Night on Bald Mountain on the stereo. As the music rose, I began to intone the French advertisements on the backs of cereal boxes in my kitchen cupboard.

The music gave Earl fits; he practically howled with rage. “Numéro Cinq! Numéro Cinq!” he cried. I played John Cage on the stereo and read the cereal boxes backwards, imitating several voices at once. Earl began to beat the door with his fists, perhaps even his head. I could see the panels giving with the force of his blows. In the midst of this I heard Sgt. Pye climbing the stairs. When he came into my apartment, he found me sitting in an old Morris chair, eating a bowl of Rice Krispies, with the stereo low. Earl had retreated to his room like a mole going underground. But I could still hear him shouting. “Numéro Cinq! Numéro Cinq!” When Sgt. Pye let himself into Earl’s room, the black man went through the window and down the fire escape.

After Earl is evicted, the hero slips into his abandoned room and discovers a photograph of a young woman. Later, he finds Earl living at a shelter while he awaits a decision on whether or not he will be committed to a mental hospital. The hero buys Earl a beer and the two walk through town at which point, for no particular reason, he starts to needle Earl again.

When we finish the beer, I take a deep breath and hand him the photograph. It turns out, as I had begun to expect it would, to be a photograph of his dead wife, a woman he loved deeply but who betrayed him with another man. I tell him I am researching a newspaper story about a secret terror organization called the Numéro Cinq, that I’d appreciate him telling me anything he knows about it. Earl is silent, but tears come to his eyes. I say, “I don’t know much. I’ve been tracking them for years.” Earl nods vigorously. “But they’re everywhere,” I say. Earl hides his face in his hands. “Everywhere,” I say, “and we’re doomed.”

–from “The Obituary Writer” in A Guide to Animal Behaviour; also in Bad News of the Heart.

Douglas Glover’s…

obscurity is legendary; he is mostly known for being unknown. He has been called “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” (Maclean’s Magazine, The National Post). But for sheer over-the-top hyperbole, nothing beats the opening of a recent piece about him in Quill and Quire in Toronto, which elevates his lack of celebrity to the epic: “Certain mysteries abide in this world: the Gordian Knot, the Holy Trinity, and the literary obscurity of Douglas Glover.” Luckily, he owns a dog and is not completely alone in the world. And occasionally someone actually reads what he writes: He has also been called “a master of narrative structure” (Wall Street Journal) and “the mad genius of Can Lit” (Globe and Mail) whose stories are “as radiant and stirring as anything available in contemporary literature” (Los Angeles Review of Books) and whose work “demands comparison to [Cormac] McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, William Faulkner” (Music & Literature). A new story collection, Savage Love, came out in 2013.

Glover is the author of five story collections, four novels, three books of essays, Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, Attack of the Copula Spiders, and The Erotics of Restraint, and The Enamoured Knight, a book about Don Quixote and novel form. His novel Elle won the 2003 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was optioned by Isuma Igloolik Productions, makers of Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner. His story book A Guide to Animal Behaviour was a finalist for the 1991 Governor-General’s Award. His stories have been frequently anthologized, notably in The Best American Short Stories, Best Canadian Stories, and The New Oxford Book of Canadian Stories. He was the subject of a TV documentary in a series called The Writing Life and a collection of critical essays, The Art of Desire, The Fiction of Douglas Glover, edited by Bruce Stone.

Glover has taught at several institutions of high learning but mostly wishes he hadn’t. For two years he produced and hosted The Book Show, a weekly half-hour literary interview program which originated at WAMC in Albany and was syndicated on various public radio stations and around the world on Voice of America and the Armed Forces Network. He edited the annual Best Canadian Stories from 1996 to 2006. He has two sons, Jacob and Jonah, who will doubtless turn out better than he did.

See also “Making Friends with a Stranger: Albert Camus’s L’Étranger,” an essay in CNQ:Canadian Notes & Queries; “Consciousness & Masturbation: A Note on Witold Gombrowicz’s Onanomaniacal Novel Cosmos,” an essay in 3:AM Magazine; “Pedro the Uncanny: A Note on Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo,” an essay in Biblioasis International Translation Series Online;A Scrupulous Fidelity: Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser,” an essay in The Brooklyn Rail;Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought,” an essay on the history of ideas also in The Brooklyn Rail; and a dozen extremely wise epigrams at Global Brief.


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Dec 012015

gabriel-josipoviciGabriel Josipovici


The first time I read Gabriel Josipovici, it was a slim, glossy brown volume sent to me by Carcanet that looked at first glance as if it might be poetry. It wasn’t, it was a short novel entitled Everything Passes, but I was struck by the amount of white space the reader is confronted with on each page, the writing being confined to a slender column of dialogue that is itself intermittent, fragmented by vertiginous silences. I began to read the first few words and felt myself slipping, slipping, as if down a polished chute, those aching blank spaces dragging me across to the next portion of dialogue as if across a dangerous precipice. I had to put it down for a while because it frightened me. And for the same reason I had to pick it up again. When it was finished, I was stunned. It was quite the most extraordinary piece of writing I had encountered in a long time.

Why has Gabriel Josipovici never won the Man Booker Prize? Or the Goldsmith’s, or the Costa Book Award? It’s a common question among those of us who are thrilled by his work. His reception by the British critical establishment has been a rocky one over the past 45 years, which remains perplexing to me. A man who spent his career teaching literature, a published academic critic and a writer of novels, short stories and plays of striking originality, should surely tick the right boxes? Maybe there is an otherness about his writing that stems from his childhood in Egypt[1] that lingers in his books just sufficiently to disturb the mainstream mind? Maybe he has been too far ahead of his time, and only now are we able to catch up with him?

Over the past few weeks, Gabriel and I have put this interview together over email. During this period he celebrated his 75th birthday and a strong sense of retrospection grew out of our conversation, a chance to look at the entirety of his writing life. I told him our focus would be on creativity: his creativity, the creativity in his texts, the creativity that his writing draws out of the reader. This was the result.


Victoria Best (VB): Let’s begin with The Inventory, your first novel published in 1968. I’d like to get a clearer picture in my mind of your mid-twenties self, a literary critic by now but embarking on a work of fiction. What was the inspiration for this novel?

Gabriel Josipovici (GJ): I wrote The Inventory before I wrote The World and the Book (1966, 1965-70). I had been writing fiction at least since my early teens – Monika Fludernik, when she was researching for her book on my fiction and drama, came to the house to look through my files and unearthed a short story I’d published in the Victoria College school magazine in 1954 in Cairo, when I was thirteen. It concerned a road waiting for the road-mender who comes every day to work on a stretch of it and who doesn’t come that day and will in fact never come again because he’s dead. I read it with amazement, because though it was naïve and didn’t really know what it was doing it had the voice I associate with my later writing, showing that this ‘voice’ is something one is born with, or that is the product of one’s earliest years, and, however ‘formative’ the experiences of one’s teens and later life, it remains constant. I went on writing stories, and in the year I had off between school and university I tried to write a novel but it was so bad and I believed in it so little that I burned it. But a story I wrote then was kept for ages by Encounter, the leading cultural journal of the time, who eventually wrote to say that after long consideration they’d decided not to publish it, but they’d like to see anything else I wrote, which was encouraging. Then at Oxford I wrote and published stories in University magazines, and an enterprising publisher (now an agent), Gillon Aitken, got in touch and asked to see more of my work. I was tremendously excited, of course, but it turned out he only wanted a novel. I said I didn’t have one but would naturally send it to him if and when I did. Despite this, I couldn’t seem to write anything longer than short (very short) stories.

I have often spoken about how I came to write The Inventory. It was such a breakthrough for me and emerged out of such turmoil and anxiety that – I now realise – it has acquired in my mind something of the status of a founding myth. But I’ve recently been reading through some of my early working notebooks and I can perhaps take this opportunity to round the picture out a bit, to release it (for myself at any rate) from its mythic dimensions.

After two years as a graduate student at Oxford and two as a young assistant lecturer at the University of Sussex, writing short stories no-one wanted to publish, I was getting more and more frustrated, feeling the need to write something longer than a short story, partly because I desperately wanted to have something substantial to work on for months rather than weeks at a time, and partly because I felt that if I didn’t write a novel I couldn’t really consider myself a proper writer (I had not yet read Borges or Robert Walser, who might have made me think differently), and partly of course because, as Gillon Aitken had shown me, publishers weren’t interested in short stories from unknown authors. I had even got to the point of feeling that much as I loved my work at Sussex, I would have to give it up, since I didn’t want to spend the rest of my days living the comfortable life of an academic but feeling deep down that I had betrayed the most intimate part of myself out of laziness or fear or for some other unfathomable reason. But the trouble was that, as I’ve said, much as I wanted to write something extended I found myself totally incapable of doing so. For if I worked out a plot I found it so boring to flesh out that the whole business of writing suddenly seemed meaningless, while if I didn’t have a plot the impetus petered out after a few pages.

A word had come into my head: inventory. Simply repeating the word to myself gave me gooseflesh. I realised that this was because the word seemed to pull in two totally opposed directions at once: in the direction of unfettered subjectivity, invention, and in the direction of absolute objectivity, an inventory list. I discovered that they actually derived from two different Latin words, invenire and inventarium, but that didn’t matter, there they both were, nestling inside the single English word. And suddenly I had a subject I was excited about: someone has died and the family, with the help of a solicitor, is making an inventory of the objects he (it soon became obvious to me it had to be a he) has left behind. As they do so the objects lead them into recollection or perhaps even invention of the person they had known and of their relationship to him.

But though I elaborated my basic plot I could not get the novel going. There seemed to be an insuperable gap between what I sketched out in my notebooks and any actual novel I might write.

I had a term of paid leave coming up at the end of my third year of teaching, and all through that year I pushed myself to write The Inventory (I knew my title) and all through that year I found I just could not get started. The three months I would have to myself (officially to write a critical book) grew and grew in importance. This was going to be the crunch. If I failed here I knew I would have to leave academic life for good and I had absolutely no idea what sort of job I would be able to get to keep myself and my mother – all I knew was that it would be a good deal less enjoyable and satisfying than the job I had. So, once the summer arrived, I knew there were no longer any excuses.

A beloved cat of mine had recently died and I decided, to take my mind off my anxiety, to write a children’s story about him. I had no children of my own but I did know and like very much a colleague’s three little girls, who had been very fond of my cat. So I imagined myself telling them his ‘story’. Day after day I simply sat down and wrote what I heard myself telling them. He had been a large neutered Tom, already an adult when we had got him, and when he sat out in the garden contemplating the world he looked rather like a triangle with soft edges. I called the story Mr.Isosceles the King.

The advantage of a children’s story was that I had no great expectations of myself and so no inhibitions to be overcome. I also had a clear audience in mind. And so I found myself, day after day, while on holiday in Italy, writing about Mr.Isosceles, until one day it was finished and I realised I had a book there which I had had no idea I would write and certainly no idea of the form it would take a month or two previously. So, as summer turned to autumn and autumn to winter, I had a new sense of confidence that just sitting and writing for a few hours every morning would yield something. Yet that did not allay my mounting sense of panic. I would wake up every morning drenched in sweat, my heart pounding. I knew it really was now or never. But fear, I discovered, can be a very useful thing. It can push one past all the inhibitions that have been holding one back and get one across that seemingly insurmountable barrier between notebook and novel.


VB: You’d already discovered the Modernist writers you loved and your relationship to them as a critic is clear. But what was your relationship to Modernism as a fledgling artist at this point? What did you hope to explore or elaborate in creative writing?

GB: The answer to the second question is: nothing. One writes because one has to, not to explore or elaborate anything. The answer to the first is, I suppose, that I had read Proust and Mann and Kafka, and Mann had made me understand that our modern situation is different from anything that has gone before, and fraught with difficulty; Kafka had made me understand that I was not alone in my sense of not belonging anywhere or having any tradition to call on; and Proust had given me the confidence to fail, had driven home to me the lesson that if you come up against a brick wall perhaps the way forward is to incorporate the wall and your effort to scale it into the work. I had read Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, and been excited by the way they reinvented the form of the novel to suit their purposes – everything is possible, they seemed to say. But when you start to write all that falls away. You are alone with the page and your violent urges, urges, which no amount of reading will teach you how to channel. ‘Zey srew me in ze vater and I had to svim,’ as Schoenberg is reported to have said. That is why I so hate creative writing courses – they teach you how to avoid brick walls, but I think hitting them allows you to discover what you and only you want to/can/must say. Not always of course. The artistic life is full of frustrations and failures as well as breakthroughs. You are alone. No-one can help you. I think that’s what Picasso means when he says that for Veronese it was simple: you mapped out the territory, started at one corner and worked forward. But for us, he says, the first brushstroke is also the last.

So: to go back to the genesis of The Inventory. I had my first scene in my head: the solicitor arrives at the house and meets the family of the deceased. I could visualise the street and the house. But how to put that down in words? Now I was sitting at the desk determined to write the book rather than simply thinking about it, this suddenly became a crucial issue. Did I use one sentence, one paragraph or one page to describe the scene? As I scribbled I found myself rejecting one effort after another: they were not in my voice, not what I wanted. They were in all the voices of all the novels I had ever read. How then to find how I wanted to say it? And suddenly, under pressure, the breakthrough occurred. I realised I was not interested in describing the scene, what I wanted was to get the characters talking to each other, to get the thing under way. And it came to me that I could simply drop all description and find ways of conveying the scene entirely through dialogue. With that the book became a challenge and a pleasure instead of a dutiful chore. I had my lists of possessions, my inventory, and I had my characters, and that was all I needed.

Years later I read Stravinsky’s account of a similar breakthrough he had experienced as a young composer (it was when working on Petrushka I think): ‘It was as though I had suddenly been given an extra joint in my fingers,’ he said. And years after too that I began to understand why I was so resistant to description, and why dialogue on the contrary seemed exciting. It was not description as such that I felt I simply could not (my body would not) do; it was that I could not countenance the introduction of an impersonal narrator who would be able to describe the scene from a privileged position outside space and time. It might seem that a first person narrator would solve the problem, but unless he was a sort of Tristram Shandy (and I found that much as I loved that book its wonderful playfulness was not something I was drawn to emulate) there would be exactly the same problem: in life things slip past us, we are always in the midst of them, we do not stop and describe, we simply take in our environment as we go. The traditional novel pretends to be doing that but in fact the first person narrator, when there is one, stands free of such pressures and simply tells the story. The descriptions he or she provides are meant to orient the reader, to act like stage directions. But I did not want such dead wood in my book. I wanted it to be alive from start to finish, from the first word to the last. And in dialogue it could be alive, for what dialogue did was provide words where (in the fiction) the characters would be providing words. Why the words are spoken, how speaking them affects the situation and what they ‘mean’ can be left as open as in any encounter in real life.

That was how, much later, I came to explain my peculiar aversion to description and my recourse, here and later, to dialogue. At the time I merely felt that I was embarked on an exciting journey and it was up to me to keep going till I got to the end.

VB: I’m also intrigued by your use of repetition – very strong in The Inventory, but also to be found in many other of your works. What is it about repetition, do you think, that brings us closer to the real?

GJ:I discovered, as I worked, that I could do without transitions. I could simply juxtapose fragments of dialogue and build up a rhythm in that way. Repetition was part of that process. As I soon discovered, Stravinsky worked in rather the same way. Instead of the development so central to the Western classical tradition he worked with small cells which he juxtaposed with others or transformed by various processes. And his descendants, I realised, were living and working in here England – Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, then young radicals setting out on their own paths, influenced by Stravinsky as well as by Varèse and Messiaen, but also harking back to late medieval and early Renaissance ways of building large works by other means than classical development. I spent many exciting hours at the concerts of the Pierrot Players, the Fires of London and the London Sinfonietta. And in the course of that discovered Stockhausen, Berio and Ligeti, very different composers, but all rejecting the linear, developmental processes of classical music and finding their inspiration in the musics of the Middle Ages, India and the Far East. It was an exciting time.

VB: What did the experience of writing this first novel teach you?

GJ: One other thing I discovered on the way was that under pressure of the situation all sorts of unexpected things occur. A writer I had not really thought about much, Raymond Queneau, became a great source of strength as I struggled with the book. Recalling his ability to maintain wild flights of fancy and yet hold on to ‘the real world’ of the France he knew, particularly in Zazie dans le métro, gave me the confidence to let go in ways I had never been able to do in my short fiction. It was frightening but exhilarating, a roller-coaster ride with no assurance that I would land on my feet at the other end. But, somehow, I did (I learned that if you let go you often do).

queneauRaymond Queneau

VB: How was it received?

GJ: Respectfully. I think it was possible to read it as a version of the English realist novel. And those were perhaps more open times, in the late sixties. Iris Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net, was, after all, dedicated to Queneau and this was the time when John Berger and David Drew, Europeans to their core, were writing in the back pages of the weeklies. Critics only turned against me with my fourth novel, Migrations, which was a break from the predominantly dialogue novels I had been writing till that point.

VB: As a critic, how would you define the role of the reader?

GJ: I’ve no idea. Perhaps we should drop such notions as ‘the role of the reader’. Reading, as you know, is the most natural of activities. I’ve seen children who can’t yet read grab the book from their father’s hand and sit there, imitating him, turning the pages, willing themselves to read, as it were. I was fortunate to grow up in a pre-television and pre-computer age, so that there was nothing else to do if you were on your own except kick a ball around or draw or read. There came a moment when my mother put down the book she was reading to me to go and do something and I picked it up and went on with it. She came back and I handed the book to her to continue, but she only smiled and said she was busy and perhaps I could go on on my own. And of course I did. I wanted to find out what happened next. And I remember lying by the pool in the sports club in Maadi, near to Cairo, where I grew up, and looking up at the big clock on the wall and thinking: soon it’ll be time for lunch and after that I can go on with my book. And I felt a tingling in my whole body at the thought. I think the book in question was Enid Blyton’s The Castle of Adventure – I’ve never read anything more thrilling, though I’ve had many similar moments of looking forward to a blissful evening with a book I was absorbed in.

VB: I ask this because Migrations is an exemplary novel in the singular effect it has on me as a reader. Your narratives have such extraordinary elasticity; they open up new spaces in my mind. I find myself drawn to the trope of migration itself, and the way your characters often walk and talk, or walk and think; their movement echoes the mental travel I undertake reading you. Do you have such a figure as Iser’s ‘ideal reader’ in your own mind when you are writing? What do you think your novels ask of the reader?

GJ: I think one writes the books one would like to read but that no-one has written. So as you write you write for yourself as reader. That figure is not in your mind so much as in your body. He is not ideal at all, he is this person: you as reader of books.

But the first part of your question deserves a fuller answer. Quite a few years ago now I received a letter from a reader of my work who told me she had had M.E. [Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, the name previously used for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, though some argue the two illnesses are different] for many years, and for a long time no doctor would take her seriously, though she had fought hard to get her condition recognised (as of course it now is). She said reading my work had a physical effect on her, actually did what medicine and therapy could not do, that while she was reading my work she started to move better, to feel more like her old self. We corresponded and it turned out she was actually in a wheelchair, but clearly a very determined lady (in earlier life, she told me, when the disease was less virulent, she had acted and even taken a small company on a tour of Africa). She asked me if I thought she should do a PhD on my work, and tried to get in to various universities to do that, but for one reason or another it didn’t work out. I suggested to her that PhDs were probably not a good idea in the Humanities (a view I hold generally), and that if she felt driven to write about my work she should just do so. Over the course of the next years she did that and in the end had a substantial book. I read it with interest because I had always been fascinated by the kind of thing Oliver Sacks was doing and loved the idea that books could have a physically, not just emotionally or intellectually, restorative effect on the reader, not just on the writer. I had hoped that in the wake of Sacks’s popularity a publisher might be persuaded to publish her book, but alas no-one would and I remain one of its sole readers. But I cherish my copy as a witness to the effect art can have.

I don’t think there’s anything uniquely ‘restorative’ about my work; if she had happened to read someone else I’m sure that would also have done the trick. Not anyone else, but I have certainly found that the authors I warm to affect my body and not just my mind. And in essays and books like Writing and the Body I’ve tried to explore in an amateur way why that should be the case. But while neurologists have been (rightly) alert to the therapeutic effects of music, and even painting, poetry and fiction have not in the past been examined from the same perspective. This has, though, recently become a topic of research, and Terence Cave, for example, has devoted some of the money he received from his Balzan prize to setting up a team in Norway to look into it, while Paul Davis and a team at Liverpool are engaged in the same enterprise. Both of them though seem to me overly scientific and abstracting. I just wish the topic would find its Oliver Sacks.

As for Migrations and migration, that work was indeed another breakthrough for me. I had grown to feel that the dialogue form I had developed in The Inventory and which I had adopted for my next two novels, Words and The Present, was no longer satisfying. I had had a few plays publicly performed and been made welcome in the wonderful BBC Third Programme and the Radio Drama department, presided over by Martin Esslin, and full of great producers able to call on the best actors in the land. My play Playback, which I worked on with that great producer, Guy Vaesen, kicked off a season of radio plays exploring the possibilities of the form. I felt more at ease in my teaching role at Sussex now it was established that part of my time at least would be spent writing. Yet in personal terms 1972-5 were very difficult years for me. A good friend committed suicide. My beloved collie dog, who had developed epilepsy in a very violent form, grand mal rather than petit mal, with fits lasting all of 36 hours, had finally had to be put down, and I could not get out of my head the look in his eyes as he felt a fit coming upon him and with no idea, of course, as a human being would have, of what was about to engulf him. I had behaved very badly to a number of people who were very close to me. All I wanted to do was beat my head against the wall and scream. In those circumstances the lightness and humour of my early novels did not seem to be of any help. I wanted to be engaged in something that went deep and that (as I put it to myself) wound round and round and round, and in the writing of which somehow the shackles I felt were binding me tight might get released. I felt I needed to go down into my own life, but when I did so I found I had no ground to build on – I had no maternal country to dream about, not even a maternal language. I felt I was a sort of absolute migrant – someone on the move from my birth on, with no place to return to and no place to go to. How, in that condition, to find any solid base on which to stand to build something substantial? Yet as I thought about all this I began to wonder if perhaps my condition was more typical of the human condition at large than our culture (any culture?) was willing to recognise. Most people have a patria and a maternal language and the notion that these are primal is somehow unquestionable. But is it true? Or is it perhaps just another myth. Perhaps if one dug down deep enough one would find only shifting sands. I started to read quite a lot of French psychoanalysis (my close friend John Mepham was a great resource there), and in particular André Green. And I began to feel that perhaps I could find a fictional form for all this.

Two images came into my mind under the pressure of trying to find my form: a Francis Bacon image of a man vomiting into a lavatory, bent double over it, a painting I must have recently seen; and Epstein’s great sculpture of Lazarus rising, the shrouds that had been wrapped about his body starting to come loose, which I had discovered in New College chapel when I was a student down the road at St.Edmund Hall and which I often used to go and contemplate in my time at Oxford. I was also listening to the current work of Peter Maxwell Davies, those enormously slow, enormously long works audiences at the time were walking out of, like Worldes Blis and the Second Fantasia on John Taverner’s In Nomine, which developed almost imperceptibly, like their great late medieval models, from tiny cells to monumental structures. And then I heard Harrison Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time, and I knew I had to write my book. It knocked me backwards, that long long slow ritual on strings and percussion, punctuated by the piercing, beautiful descant of the clarinet. Towards the end of the huge single movement there is a glimpse of something found, then that too is swallowed up in the funereal march. Finally, I was just starting to learn biblical Hebrew in order to read the Hebrew Bible in the original language. I was also reading the Bible in English quite intensively. I came across this phrase in the prophet Micah: ‘Arise and go, for this is not your rest.’ (Micah 2.10) I loved the sound of it in Hebrew: c’mu velochu ki lo zot ha-menuchah, and I was excited to discover that the word for rest, menuchah, is also to be found in various other places in the Bible, notably when the dove is sent out of the ark by Noah but can find no rest for her feet because the earth is still covered by water. I knew then that I had found the epigraph to my book, and, after much internal debate, decided to leave it in Hebrew to give a sense of its otherness and strangeness, and since the precise reference would allow anyone interested to look it up in an English Bible.

I had been driving up and down the road that leads from Brixton to New Cross, a road that filled me with horror every time I took it, it was so endless, so run down and desperate (it must have changed dramatically, like all of London, in the forty years since I was there), and I took that as my location. I hoped that by facing that despair and the despair of the man in Bacon’s sealed room vomiting into the lavatory, by finding a way of writing it, I might regain a modicum of balance. But I was terrified that so instinctive a procedure would lead to nothing more than a mess, so that though I wrote it straight, day after day, never looking back, once that first draft was done I subjected it to more analysis and drew more grids than I have ever done before or ever want to do again. I found that the pattern 9+1 was a recurrent one, tweaked it here and there, and decided on a title with nine letters plus the sign for the plural. And so Migrations was completed.

I had been so deeply immersed in it, and it had seen me through such a bad time, that, once my only reliable reader (relied upon to criticise as well as praise, which is essential), my mother, had read it and said she was deeply moved, I felt happy to send it to Gollancz, who had published my previous three books, including my first volume of short stories, Mobius the Stripper: Stories and Short Plays. That volume had been awarded the Somerset Maugham Prize, a wonderful accolade for a young writer, news I had received on returning from a brief holiday to try and come to terms with my friend’s suicide, but at the last minute the prize was withdrawn on a technicality (I had not had an English passport when I was born, a fact I had never tried to hide, but which it seemed was a stipulation by Maugham for the award of the prize, even though in his lifetime he had waived that requirement in a couple of instances, and which the publishers, who submitted the book, had overlooked) and Gollancz, who had slipped bright yellow wrappers announcing the award on all copies of The Present, which they were about to publish, had to hurriedly remove these. Insult was added to injury when the chair of the Society of Authors, which managed the prize, Antonia Fraser, wrote more or less accusing me of deliberate fraud and ended with the chilling words: ‘However, I am sure you will agree that the publicity you are getting more than makes up for the withdrawal of the prize.’ Be that as it may, Gollancz took one look at Migrations and turned it down. When it was eventually published it was rubbished by the critics, Susan Hill, for example, saying (was it in The Observer?) ‘If you like that sort of thing then that is the sort of thing you will like.’ It was my first encounter with the entrenched conservatism of the English media and especially of established English writers, a conservatism I now suspect (after the similar outburst of bile that greeted my recent critical book, What Ever Happened to Modernism?) is due more to anxiety than to anything else.


VB: The other figure that recurs across your works is the figure of the man alone in his room. This makes me think of both the reader and the writer, who are often in such a situation. What draws you to this figure, or perhaps better to ask, how was this figure thrust upon you?

GJ: I think I’ve answered this in relation to Migrations. As for its larger or deeper significance, all I can say is that my pulse quickens when I see paintings or listen to music or read books where the constraints are fairly tight – where a room hems in the figures, as in Vermeer or Hammershøi or some of Giacometti, or the musical resources are limited, as in Renard and Histoire du soldat. Why it should do so is a difficult question, better left to others.

VB: I wonder if we might bring in your notion of art-as-toy here; something material and real in its own right but invested with imagination and fantasy. Do you think, as both author and critic, that the ‘toy’ of art is different – invites different kinds of play – for its creator than for its consumer?

GJ: Not sure I understand this. Art is making, poiesis, and what I like about much modern art is that it acknowledges this, indeed, makes a virtue out of it. We may be nostalgic for the organic, for art growing as a tree grows, but to accept that art is made by someone at some moment is exhilarating for me. That’s why I love Tristram Shandy. Of course there are dangers. If one starts to think of it as simply artificial one is set firmly on the conceptual route, and though I am interested in Duchamp, who was a complicated and conflicted figure, I am not much interested in his followers. A key moment in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, to my mind, though no-one has mentioned it, is the confrontation I set up between Duchamp and Bacon. Both of them want nothing to do with mere description, nor do they want to go down the road of abstraction, but where Duchamp views every artistic gesture with suspicion, Bacon is prepared to trust the moment, to trust his painterly gesture. Duchamp has all the philosophical answers, but Bacon is a bit like Dr.Johnson confronting Bishop Berkeley: he kicks the stone. Duchamp will never be accused of self-indulgence or losing the plot, but my heart is with Bacon. And more than my heart. I believe that if we realise that a child lives the toy, lives with the toy, while never for a moment thinking it is anything other than a toy, then we perhaps have a better model of our relationship to art than the conceptual one. I at any rate dream of making a work that is like some complicated toy you can dismantle and put together again and that is always not just more than the sum of its parts but in a different dimension. So I love works like Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi or Birtwistle’s Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum and Steve Reich’s percussion pieces – but of course I also love works which are not like that at all, such as those of Kafka and Beckett and Stockhausen and Kurtág.

What ever happened

VB: Perhaps we might address the influence of Jewish elements in your works. It would be foolishly reductive to call you a ‘Jewish writer’; yet patterns of migration and exile are evocative, and many of your protagonists identify themselves as Jews (in a way that is often serious and amusing at once). How would you describe these elements in your writing?

GJ: Until well into my thirties I knew I was Jewish, knew my mother and I had survived in France during the war more by luck than anything else, yet I had no connection with things Jewish. My first books were written by someone without any contact with organised religion or with any religious tradition. So I was intrigued when, years later, a German colleague at Sussex, who was working on the way in which the Nazis took over the flats of Jews in Vienna after the Anschluss, told me she felt The Inventory was a very Jewish work: ‘It’s a book about the fragile remains of one person’, she said, ‘and the memory of that person in the objects he leaves behind and in the lives of those who survive. Surely you were obliquely writing about the war?’ I assured her that that was not the case, but of course accepted that sometimes we write more than we know.

Then, as I have said, at the time of writing Migrations I was starting to read the Hebrew Bible intensively. And what I found in the narratives there was a kind of writing that I had only come across in the work of Marguerite Duras: narratives denuded of description or psychologising, narratives which draw their power from the way dialogue and the stark description of ‘what happens’ hint at depths which evade even the speakers themselves. It was very exciting. And at the time too I became friends with a number of wonderfully thoughtful and interesting religious Jews, mainly Reform, Francis Landy, Geoff Newman, Jonathan Magonet. I found they shared one of the central attitudes I had been delighted to find at Sussex when I joined the University, a belief that one need not always have the answers, that sometimes genuine puzzlement is more fruitful than clear solutions. I admire and respect their devotion but because I never had any religious education or went to synagogue as a child I feel a little bit outside it all, but they – and they are still good friends – seem to accept me as I am. And like them too I despair of what is happening in and to Israel. The Jewishness I cherish is the one that stresses wandering as the human condition, not any sort of possession of a promised land.

So I would say that the feeling that I am Jewish is now more informed than it was, but it remains, like my awareness of Proust and Kafka, a support and a comfort rather than anything else.

VB: When I put down one of your novels, I feel that something significant and real has happened, and maybe it’s a case of Eliot’s belief that ‘mankind cannot take too much reality?’

GJ: Naturally I’m delighted you feel that way about my books. I suppose what I discovered in writing The Inventory is that I want a work to live its own life from the first word to the last. With the first word something unusual is happening, something for which there is no justification, which is a cheat, and yet which is also magical, wonder-full. I want to celebrate that, embrace it, not deny it, as do most works of fiction. I’m not interested in telling a story. I love the narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the narratives of the Border Ballads and of the Grimm tales, but most so-called classical novels turn me off – I don’t want to be filled with Stendahl’s or George Eliot’s inventions, or even Tolstoy’s, all those descriptions of clothes and rooms and the rest – I want books that leave a space for me to discover myself, like Proust’s or Kafka’s, or that get my body dancing, like those of Queneau and Muriel Spark. Lots happens in Balzac and Dickens, but I’d rather read Chandler or Wodehouse, writers who know that what they are doing is neither ‘significant’ nor ‘real’. But that’s no criticism of the classic novel (or the contemporary Goncourt or Booker contender), just that it’s not for me. As Stravinsky said of Mahler: ‘Our pulses beat at different rates.’

VB: And yet, I’m not sure I’ve read anything in which you abandon full characters. I’m thinking now particularly of the monologue novels like Moo Pak and Infinity, where you have Jack Toledano and Tancredo Pavone vividly depicted by their friends and servants, Damien Anderson and Massimo, who frame their stories. Wodehouse gives his characters easy, ridiculous, robust emotions, but what touches me about these two novels in particular is the love, friendship and loyalty, the very real emotions that drive the narrative. Friendship, suffering, the drive to create; I feel your works are very rich in emotion ‒ but entirely empty of sentiment. Would that be fair to say?

GJ: I’ve always felt that while a short story can spring out of an idea or a phrase a novel has to have characters I can empathise with. You have to have something genuinely invested in it if you are to spend a year or three of your life with a piece of fiction – there has to be something you want to explore and something you are moved by. For a long time I worked with the initial conceit of Infinity, and with the figure of the eccentric avant-garde Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, but it was only when I opened myself to the human dimension of the relationship between Pavone and Massimo that the novel finally came. On the other hand I always conceived of Moo Pak as a dialogue novel with one part of the dialogue missing. ‘Rich in emotion but empty of sentiment’ – I can’t think of a nicer description of my work or one I would be happier with.

Moo Pak

VB: I’m also very intrigued by the ghosts of real people behind some of your novels – Giacinto Scelsi in Infinity, Pierre Bonnard in Contre-Jour, Joseph Cornell in Hotel Andromeda. I don’t for one second think this is a biographical urge, so what do these real figures offer you in terms of inspiration or structure or… maybe something else entirely?

GJ: I too have been intrigued by that question ‒ ever since I worked on The Air We Breathe, behind which lies the figure of Claude Monet, and which was sparked off by my looking at a book of photographs of the aged Monet and his wife – sitting on the beach in Dieppe, pottering about the garden in Giverny, etc. – and then found myself following it up with a book loosely based on the life and work of Pierre Bonnard, Contre-Jour. Enough, I said to myself, or people will start thinking of you as a novelist who only writes oblique biographies of painters. And then I found myself writing a book at the centre of which was Marcel Duchamp, The Big Glass, and fifteen years later a book in which Joseph Cornell figured prominently, Hotel Andromeda. It’s true that in between I wrote a number of novels – Now, Only Joking, After, Making Mistakes – which do not have an artist at the centre, but even so, what was going on? All I can say is that something in the life of this or that artist does more than intrigue me, it grabs me to such an extent that I cannot rest till I have had a go at discovering why, and doing so in the only way I know, by writing a piece of fiction. With Bonnard it was hearing a talk about why he painted his wife Marthe so frequently lying stretched out in the bath (because, said the speaker, she was a compulsive washer); with Duchamp it was reading about how, when he learned that the work on which he had spent so much time and energy, The Large Glass, had been damaged in transit to an exhibition, the glass panels cracked beyond repair, his response was: ‘Wonderful!’ With Scelsi it was reading the crazy remarks he made to interviewers and some of which were printed in the sleeve-notes to his CDs (‘I was born in Mesopotamia 2800 years ago’; ‘Other composers like to hold up their profiles to the photographers and to show off their noses; I have a finer nose, a perfect Roman nose, much finer than any of them but I have never let myself be photographed.’). With Cornell it was seeing those photos of him in old age in his garden or his study in the house in Utopia Parkway he had lived in most of his life, looking like a figure already passed over to the other side. But in every case I had to love the art or at least to find it highly interesting. I could not spend a year or more of my life with someone with whom I was not in some sort of sympathy.

And I think too that the combination of work that I found fascinating and a life that intrigued me and which I could identify with acted a bit like the double focus of that word ‘inventory’ with my first novel – it gave me the rudiments of a plot, and a form. Already in some very early stories I had found myself trying to find literary equivalents of paintings by Picasso, Vermeer, Dix, and others, and taking as the ‘content’ of the story what the painting represented: two large women running on a beach, a woman at the harpsichord, a mirrored room in Brussels during World War I. So it’s clearly more than a passing fad.


VB: I am particularly interested in the depiction of creativity that comes out of your work. There seems to me to be one constant feature uniting the artists in your pages and that is their absolute dedication to art. What makes this something you want to write about?

But I am also curious about the way that these characters suffer ‒ or make those around them suffer ‒ for creativity. Do you think that creativity is necessarily costly; that it always demands a measure of sanity or love or peace of mind to be paid?

GJ: That, I suspect, is the deeper reason for my fascination with these artists. Artists are the saints of our day, no? Surely, they argue by their choices, life is in the end about something other than money and status, life is a quest, a puzzle and a gift. On the other hand there is something ridiculous about this stance. Something quixotic. For already in the early seventeenth century Cervantes sensed that the dedicated life was an absurdity, whether that life was passed in dedication to God or to knight errantry or to the writing of books. I think that is one reason why I write novels and not critical books about Bonnard, Duchamp etc. Because fiction can show up the absurdity, even the self-delusion (Infinity), or the costs to others (Contre-Jour) of the obsessive artistic life, as well as its wonder and glory. That’s the beauty of art, of fiction, that it can accept and reveal complexity, even contradiction, and leave you simply pondering how life is.

VB: On that note of costly creativity, maybe we can return to you in the 80s and 90s. You’d been a young man longing to create works of literary fiction and here you are doing so, an established author. Had the experience been as you expected it would be? How had it changed you (if indeed it had)?

GJ: I’m not sure about ‘established’. After the débacle of the Somerset Maugham Prize and Migrations (1977) I had been labeled an ‘experimental’ writer once and for all and routinely abused and dismissed in reviews or else ignored altogether. With each new book of course I thought: This time they’ll get it, this time they’re bound to see what I’m after, but it didn’t happen. Publishers would take one book, swear they were in it for the long haul, then drop me when no-one bought the book, until I finally found a home in Michael Schmidt’s then expanding Carcanet fiction list. Carcanet have stood by me for the past thirty plus years, though during that time their fiction list has had to shrink and almost disappear (I think I am the last remnant of a once-vibrant list that included Clarice Lispector, Natalia Ginsberg, Leonardo Sciascia and Christine Brooke-Rose). When Contre-Jour was taken by Gallimard I thought: at last I will find a public to appreciate me. But Gallimard pushed it as a novel just about Bonnard and it fell flat and they lost interest. It wasn’t till the late nineties that a Swiss publisher, Gerd Haffmans Verlag, began to take my work and to publish it in Germany that I felt I had found a public. It wasn’t just that reviewers were kinder to the work, it was that the reviews were intellectually on a different level to the English ones and engaged with the work (Haffmans Verlag brought out Now, ContreJour and Only Joking when that book had not even found an English publisher) in ways inconceivable to English editors and reviewers. When I gave readings from my work in Germany I found people responding to it on its own terms, instead of more or less asking me to justify myself, as I felt on the rare occasions I had done readings or interviews in England. But then Haffmans went bankrupt, a seemingly common fate with any press that took me on. Finally in the new century dedicated small presses in France (Quidam) and Spain (Raig Verde, Complices) began to bring out my books in those countries, and first Zweitausendeins and then Suhrkamp and Jung & Jung in Germany. But it’s really only in the last few years (with the rise of the internet and blogs like yours and Steve Mitchelmore’s) that I’ve ceased to feel I’m there on sufferance and the sooner I disappear the happier the literary establishment will be.

Of course all that has its good as well as its bad side. I remember my Oxford friend, the composer Gordon Crosse, saying to me all those years ago: ‘For the artist there are two dangers, success and failure.’ Wise words. I’ve seen what success has done even to writers I admired (Golding and Pinter for example, even Claude Simon) and felt in a way glad it had never come my way. Failure – it depends how you define it. When all public responses are not just negative but dismissive it’s sometimes hard to keep going. We are not Buddhists, we need some sense that what we are doing is more than self-indulgence. But of course in the end we go on writing because we have to/want to. (David Plante once said to me: ‘Remember, Gabriel, no-one asked you to do this.’ More wise words.) I have now accepted that I will always only appeal to a very small section of readers, anyway in this country, but probably everywhere, but I have also come to feel in the last few years (not in the eighties and nineties) that there is a growing body of people for whom my writing really matters, and that is heart-warming and encourages me to keep going.


VB: You have written the most moving tribute to your mother, the translator Sacha Rabinovitch, in A Life, the memoir of your relationship. What do you think she gave you as an artist?

GJ: It’s so difficult to say. She gave me life, of course, and then she saved us both when we were stranded in France during the war. When I was fifteen she once again showed courage and determination when we left Egypt for good in 1956, just before the Suez crisis. She left her sister, her only remaining family apart from me, her beloved dogs and all her possessions to face a totally unknown future. She had no idea if she would be allowed into England, where I was going to finish my schooling, and, if not, what would happen to her. So my being in England and becoming an English-language writer I also owe to her forethought and determination.

All that might have been a heavy burden for me to bear, but she was also the most generous and the most loving of people, and gave me all her love without (I think) spoiling me – a difficult balance. But the real miracle was that as I became an adult (in fact from the moment I came back from Oxford, where I had been on my own for three years, for the first time in my life) we found we had a great many shared interests ‒ and even tastes – in books, in music, in art, animals, in walking – and became firm friends. Which doesn’t mean of course that we did not have quarrels, sometimes terrible ones, when people are that close it’s probably inevitable. But it was wonderful to have a friend in her to whom I knew I could always turn. When I began to write she was naturally the first person to whom I showed my work. And she was invariably encouraging though quite ready to make critical comments when she thought they were justified. Her response to The Inventory was typical. When a draft of that book was finally finished I left it with her to read and went off to London for the day. When I entered the house on my return my heart was beating. I felt that this was the moment of truth. I had no idea if what I had done was very good, quite good, or just plain rubbish. Her first words were: ‘It’s wonderful.’ And as the sense of relief flooded through my body she added: ‘I think you’ll have to work on the ending, though.’

So I suppose in answer to your question I have to say: she gave me everything. The deep confidence of knowing that, however out of step I was with the prevalent culture of the time, someone else thought the work good, someone I could trust. I would not have written what I have had it not been for her, and one of the hardest things about her death was losing my best and most reliable critic.

VB: Let’s talk about Goldberg: Variations, which strikes me as your most widely-reviewed novel to date. I also find it quite different to everything else you’ve written without being able to put my finger on why that should be so. It is such a unique piece of fiction – how did it come into being?

GJ: I think it was in the early nineties that I came across that anecdote about Bach’s writing of the Goldberg Variations. It derives from Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, but I can’t remember if I had been reading Forkel or another book on Bach or perhaps it was just a passing mention of the story in something on quite a different topic. (Scholars, it is worth saying, now cast doubt on every aspect of the anecdote.) It seems that Count Keyserlingk, a Leipzig nobleman, had insomnia, and he asked his court musician, the harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to play to him at nights in the hope that that might send him to sleep. Goldberg in turn asked Bach to write him a suitable piece, and that was how one of the greatest works of music ever written came into being. I thought it would be fun, as a sort of homage to Bach, to see what happened when I transposed the story to Britain and turned Bach from a composer to a writer. And I conceived the idea of an English nobleman in the late eighteenth century developing a debilitating insomnia and calling up his not too distant neighbour, the renowned writer of German-Jewish descent, Samuel Goldberg, to come and read to him, and then to insist that he read something he had written that day. It was an amusing jeux-d’esprit, and I got it written without too much difficulty. As I was finishing it I heard Judith Weir, a composer I knew slightly, talking on the radio about the importance to her and to so many modern composers, of Bach. I decided to send her the story, something I regretted doing for the next few years, because she wrote back quite soon to say she had much enjoyed reading it on a train journey to Manchester and when would I have the other twenty-nine variations to show her?

Of course once the seed has been sown in your mind it’s impossible to dislodge. I loved the Variations and every time I heard them I was deeply moved by the fact that when the Aria with which it starts returns, unchanged, at the end, we hear it completely differently, because of the long road we have travelled. I also loved the idea of a piece that would be made up of a number of discrete yet interlinked parts and that would yet be more than the sum of its parts. But I had set my initial ‘variation’ in England in the late eighteenth century, and while it was possible (for me) to write a piece of historical fiction that covered twenty pages I was not sure I could – or would want to – keep it up over a whole novel. I am not a historical novelist and am not interested in historical novels. Certainly not in twentieth century ones. Nevertheless, I thought I ought to give it a go. After all, I greatly admired William Golding’s The Spire, set in the Middle Ages, admired it particularly for the fact that Golding made the setting feel completely authentic yet hardly went out of his way to ‘set’ his novel in a bygone time. Perhaps I could learn from him.

Over the next few years I struggled with the project, periodically growing sick of it and turning to other things, yet always coming back to it. I couldn’t get it off the ground and I couldn’t quite let it go. I cursed Judith Weir. But in the end I had to let it go. I had written half a dozen ‘variations’ and roughed out the end, but it seemed terribly false and arch to me and I dropped it. I turned to contemporary subjects with relief and wrote Moo Pak and then Now, both set in present-day London. But after my mother’s death and the emotional turmoil that followed, I found myself spending more and more time in Berlin where a friend had a flat and a bicycle to lend me, and perhaps it was the distance and the unfamiliarity of my surroundings, but I found myself turning to my abandoned novel again. As I cycled along the canal or river towpath in Berlin, stopping off at beer houses with shady gardens, I pondered the problems of my book and found myself starting to work at it again. I realised that perhaps what I should do was punch a window into the present in the fabric of the building I had erected, so to speak, and let the later ‘variations’ enter the modern world. And then other things began to fall into place. I had decided from the start that I would not follow Bach’s variations slavishly, writing a very fast or a heavily ornamented variation when he did, etc. Yet there were a few landmarks in the landscape of his mighty work that I felt I would like to incorporate into my feeble effort, in particular the moving slow and lyrical variations to be found, one towards the end of the first half and one halfway through the second, and also the rumbustious knockabout variation with which he concludes. I had also, like all listeners to the work, been struck by the fact that Bach does not, after the Aria, begin with any sort of overture, but keeps that back till variation 16, the start of the second half. I decided that for that grand piece ‘in the French style’, I would transpose another Bach anecdote to late eighteenth century England. The story goes that by the end of his life Bach’s fame and his ability to improvise complex music had spread to the court in Potsdam, and it was there that the King invited him and gave him a theme which he asked him to improvise on. The result was another astonishing masterpiece, The Musical Offering. I decided that my naturalised English writer would also compose a number of variations on a theme given him at court by George III.

I had had a postcard of an extraordinary late work by Paul Klee on my desk in Lewes for some time. Called Wander-Artist, which means something like travelling showman and performer, it depicts, in stark black, a crudely drawn figure striding from left to right across a red background, itself hemmed in by a rough black frame, and waving as he goes. The whole is painted to look more like a poster than an artwork, and I loved it and was moved by it, for reasons I could not begin to fathom. But as I worked with renewed energy on my homage to Bach that figure suddenly intruded into the fiction and even began to speak. That was when I knew that finally the thing was coming together and one day I would have a book.

When it was done and I had my thirty variations I racked my brains to try and decide how to compose the Aria that in Bach starts and finishes the work. And it gradually dawned on me that that may be the difference between our age and the age of Bach, that his can have an opening and closing Aria, which anchors the piece and set the parameters, while ours can only have variations. In other words, there was a good and profound reason why I could not find it in me to write my Aria. And with that thought came the further thought that for this book the Aria would have to be the Klee Wander-Artist, which I would ask the publisher to put on the front and back covers, as though the only Aria for us to countenance today would have to be a collage onto mine of someone else’s work, and would be a work that itself cast doubt on the notion of the artist, suggesting as it does, like other works of Klee, such as Ghost of a Genius, that today the word can only be used mockingly, artist reduced to artiste, genius to ghost.

With that my work on the book came to an end. But my feeling, after working at it for far longer than for any of my other novels, was mainly one of relief, not of triumph. And of course it was the first novel of mine that I could not show to my mother. As to whether it’s all that different from my other works, I’m not sure. In some ways of course it is, and I’ve tried to explain why. But the central figure of the Wander-Artist is another of my walkers, isn’t he? His roots I think probably go back to Migrations. But it’s really not for me to say.

Goldberg- Variations

VB: Goldberg was received wonderfully well in France. Reading the reviews, I feel they really ‘got’ you, if you know what I mean. As you mentioned with the German reading public, they responded so deeply to what you are doing in your fiction. I wonder why your writing works so well with a European sensibility that seems lacking in the Anglo-Saxon temperament of the British?

GJ: But it took twelve years to appear in translation. Haffmans Verlag had commissioned a translation but the firm went bankrupt before they could publish it, and so far no other foreign publisher has dared take it on, apart from Quidam, my intrepid and wonderful French publisher, who brought it out last year. I did finally feel then that I had found my public, something, as I said earlier, that I had hoped for with Contre-Jour but which never materialised at the time.

As to why my books get more intelligently reviewed in Germany and France, there must surely be many reasons. There is now a clear divide between the cultural life in England and America on the one hand, and on the continent on the other. You go into a French bookshop and the main table is spread out with books on philosophy; in an English bookshop, with books on food or gardening, or with biographies of footballers. The Net Book Agreement holds in France and hardly anyone uses Amazon, preferring always to buy through their local bookshop. And there are still several of these, independent bookshops, in every quarter of Paris, each with its devoted band of readers. Bernard Hoepffner, my brilliant French translator, and I read together from Goldberg in a small Paris bookshop last year. We occupied the only two seats they could get into the small space, but it was packed with people who had already read the book, listened attentively, and asked good questions, standing for over two hours. And that’s not just true of Paris, but of most French towns. With Bernard we took the train to Tours and read in a bookshop there (the tickets and our hotel paid for by the bookshop owner). Same story, except that the place was big enough for seats to be brought in. Drinks were served afterwards. When we did the same in Brussels, the owner said he couldn’t stay to have dinner with us. He had made his money, it turned out, in business, and then at the age of 30 retired and started the bookshop. At ten that night he was taking part in a 160-kilometre bicycle event. So he was living the life he wanted to live. In England I suspect someone in his position would have opened a wine-bar. So it’s a whole cultural thing. Proust, Blanchot, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, Mann, Heidegger, Celan, are living presences for most educated readers in France and Germany. In England? One just has to ask the question to see the problem.

It’s a shame, though, because I feel a dose of English irony and even scepticism would sometimes be useful when French or German intellectuals ascend into the stratosphere, and I love the deflationary irony of the best of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. But it can so easily become a cheap and sneering cynicism, which is really a kind of schoolboy panic in the face of what they feel is beyond them. In their disciples only the cynicism is left.

VB: I’d like to mention a couple of your novellas, now, beginning with Everything Passes, the first of your books I read and still one of my favourites. The pliancy of this narrative astonishes me every time. Can we talk about white spaces? They’re a feature of several of your works and give them a particular, striking effect. What does that blank space bring to your narrative, do you think?

GJ: Not sure I can answer your questions, but I’ll have a go. First of all, ‘novellas’. I don’t know when the term was invented, but it is clearly helpful when the expected length for a novel was between 500 and 1000 pages. It helps us distinguish Bartleby from Moby Dick and The Death of Ivan Ilych from War and Peace. But I’m not sure it’s helpful with the modern writers I’m interested in – Woolf, Spark, Duras, Bernhard, Appelfeld – very few of whom write long books. Proust wrote one enormous work of fiction, basically, but the many short novels of Woolf or Bernhard can also be seen as parts of a single project. Whether my books should be seen like that or not it’s not for me to say – they certainly feel like that from the inside.

I’m glad you responded to Everything Passes – I had been thinking about it for a decade or two before I wrote it and a great many different elements went into it – hearing Schoenberg’s late String Trio, that extraordinary expressionist work which, he said, attempted to describe what he felt like when he technically died and had to be resuscitated with an injection; a photo of Francis Ponge looking out of a dirty window with a broken pane I once saw in a newspaper and could never forget; much else. But you are asking me about the way it is written. One of my earliest pieces is a long ‘story’ called ‘Distances’. I think the epigraph is from Rilke: ‘those feelable distances’. I am drawn to the idea of the distance between people, and even between ourselves and ourselves, as a space that is vibrant with unspoken feeling. The works of art that touch me are those where that is in play – in Vermeer’s painting, in Velazquez’ Las Meninas, in Hammershøi’s silent rooms – works which have an enigmatic quality, a sense of waiting for something to happen, where the waiting is more important than the happening. I love the idea of a work of fiction which can catch that. And as I discovered with The Inventory, you really don’t have to spell out the transitions, and you can use repetition to convey rhythm. I love the border ballads for that reason, and the late medieval ballades and many of Dunbar’s poems. As with the Aria in the Goldberg Variations, these refrains and repetitions are never exactly the same when they return, precisely because now they have been heard before. And I suppose I’ve never got over my first hearing of those long slow works of Maxwell Davis and Birtwistle which seem quite static but where something is slowly stirring and by the end you find you have travelled a long long way, even if that way is not linear.

Does that start to answer it?

VB: Also in Everything Passes, your protagonist, Felix, discusses Rabelais and the moment in European culture when Rabelais understands that he has ‘gained the world and lost [his] audience’. I wondered what you felt about that in relation to contemporary audiences. Do you think we are undergoing another seismic shift in terms of the reader and his or her capacity for attention and understanding?

GJ: You know, I wanted Felix to sound pompous and just gave him something pompous to say. Schoenberg, who is vaguely behind Felix, lost his first wife to a much younger friend. I suspect she could not bear his ponderous certainties, his propensity to lecture one at the slightest opportunity. But of course I stand by the gist of his comments. I do think Rabelais and the whole tradition of which he is the head – Cervantes, Sterne – wrote out of just such a sense of print as both liberating and crippling. But whether this is being repeated today – are you referring to the internet etc? – I wouldn’t know. I still read books and trust that anyone who bothers to read me will do the same. And, interestingly, Patrick Wildgust, the director of the Laurence Sterne Trust who runs Shandy Hall, tells me he is sure the renewed interest of young people in Sterne has something to do with the internet. People blame the internet, he says, for sapping readers’ ability to stick with a linear narrative for several hundreds of pages, but by the same token Sterne, who is all digression and no linearity, is the ideal author for the internet age. Of course there are few works with the originality and zest of Tristram Shandy, and I suspect one needs to know how to commune with a book in silence to respond to Woolf or Duras or Bernhard.

VB: After is an extraordinary novella (published in a Carcanet edition with Making Mistakes). There’s an exchange in it that thrills me: ‘genuine puzzlement is much more productive than false clarity’, your protagonist says, to which comes the reply: ‘I wonder if your theory is not a little dangerous when applied to life and not to the problems of the mind.’ What gave you the idea for this story with its profound exploration of memory and knowledge?

GJ: I’m so glad you like After – and was so moved by your review of it when it came out all those years ago. It was another of those books which just refused to come. I eventually forced my way through to the end in a rather tense period of six months I spent in Paris, teaching once a week at the American University. I had had a bad two or three years in my personal life, compounded by the fact that my German publisher had gone bust and Carcanet were uncertain whether they would be able to go on publishing fiction at all. Writing it was a kind of lifeline for me. I felt I just had to write it to stay sane, and in fact it’s a pretty mad novel. I don’t know what I think of it. In a way it’s a reprise of The Echo-Chamber. At times I feel deeply embarrassed by it and ashamed of it, at others very proud. I can’t say any more than that.

VB: We haven’t really talked about your short stories. Would you like to say a few words about them?

GJ: There are writers like Bellow for whom short stories are really shards dropped from the novels or ideas for novels that never quite developed. And there are writers like Beckett and Robbe-Grillet who used the short story form to test out their style and vision in their early years. There are also writers like Borges or Ambrose Bierce whose fictional output consists of nothing but short stories. And finally there are those, like Hawthorne or Malamud, who have written both short stories and novels and recognised that these are rather different forms, each with its strengths and its weaknesses. I feel I belong to this group. I’ve always loved short stories, enjoy the fact that you can control every word in them in ways you can in a poem but not a novel, and some of my happiest moments have come when I realise I have finally nailed one. This happened with one of my earliest, ‘Mobius the Stripper’, with a small group of stories I wrote in the eighties, ‘Second Person Looking Out’, ‘He’, ‘That Which is Hidden is That Which is Shown…’, ‘Steps’ and ‘Volume IV, pp.167-69’, and with a couple of more recent ones, ‘He Contemplates a Photo in a Newspaper’ and ‘Heart’s Wings’. In fact, I’m not sure, if I were asked which of my books I feel happiest to have written, if I would not plump for ‘Heart’s Wings’ and Other Stories, a volume of recent and selected earlier short stories which Carcanet published in 2010, with a fine cover designed by my son.

Hearts wing

VB: You used to write stage and radio plays. Why did you stop?

GJ:After my first two novels had been published a theatre was built in the new University where I had gone to teach, at Sussex, and the students asked me to write several plays for them. The challenge was very exciting. I wrote a monologue for Nick Woodeson, who later rose to become a distinguished actor, one of those Pinter regularly turned to, and two plays for a group of students. Then I worked very intensely on a collaboration with the Australian composer, Peter Sculthorpe, who had come to the University as a visiting professor while he was trying to get started on an opera commissioned for the opening of the Sydney Opera House. Our collaboration came to nothing, but as a result of our discussions and my immersion in things Australian I wrote a play, Dreams of Mrs Fraser, which was premiered at the Royal Court Upstairs. Then for a while I wrote for the little theatres which were starting to proliferate in Britain in the early seventies. Unfortunately they soon started to concentrate on more overtly political kinds of drama, and I found that my plays fell between two stools: too ‘avant-garde’ for the conventional stages but not political enough for the little theatres. Later, and for several years, I teamed up with a Brighton-based company, and wrote a number of lunchtime pieces for them, but they eventually disbanded and commissions dried up. I find that while I will always write fiction, which I do on my own in my own time, and which, thank God, I have always eventually found publishers for, with the theatre you have to have a specific commission, to know what kind of company and space you are writing for, even though you always hope that if the work is good enough it will find other homes elsewhere after a first outing.

I did have one very exciting commission at the time. The newly-formed Actors’ Company, which included Ian McKellen and Caroline Blakiston, invited me to write a half-hour play for five actors, with minimal props as they were short of funds, to be performed at lunchtime in Edinburgh where they were doing a season of Shakespeare and Chekhov. In half an hour you can’t really waste time having people go in and out, so this forced me into attempting something I had only ever half-thought about: a play of five intertwining monologues performed by actors seated facing the audience. I had always felt that my trouble with most post-Renaissance art is that you are meant to face it head on, while it stands still, so to speak, and stares back at you. Yet in life things are constantly slipping past us, just caught out of the corner of the eye, or only half-heard. I liked the idea of an audience trying to hold all five monologues in mind at the same time but of course being unable to do so, and gradually letting go of some in order to make sense of one or at most two. The rehearsals were very exciting, my brilliant and virtuoso cast rising to the challenge I’d set them. The trouble was there was no room for hesitation, and if you lost your place there was no way of finding it again. And invariably one or other of the cast would lose their way. In the end the director, Edward Petherbridge, had to decide whether to keep going with rehearsals to the end and hope for the best or cut his losses and set up lecterns in front of each so that they could read the words. And this is what he did. The result I felt (and Howard Hobson in The Sunday Times, agreed with me) was unnerving and powerful, but it was not nearly as powerful as it had been in rehearsal, where the actors’ anxiety and fear of not getting to the end without coming unstuck, became part of the tension of the whole and where their very vulnerability in front of the audience made for very powerful theatre. The play has been done once or twice since, but always with lecterns, and I long to see it done without. It would have to be a young and fearless company to do it though.

Flow, as I called it, and Comedy, the second of the plays I wrote for the Sussex students, and which almost got done professionally in a boxing ring, which would have been perfect (the backers pulled out at the last moment) – these are the plays I’d most like to see revived in really bold productions.

Though work in the theatre dried up by the end of the seventies, I was starting to write quite a lot for radio. I had always loved the idea of radio drama and in the radio drama team at the BBC, I found I had people who believed in me and were prepared to commission work with absolutely no strings attached. The result was a series of very happy collaborations, from Playback in 1973 to the mid-eighties. When Guy Vaesen retired (though he returned to produce my 90 minute monologue, Vergil Dying, written for Paul Scofield and performed by him on radio) I teamed up with another fine producer, John Theocharis and together we worked on a number of productions, two of which were chosen by the BBC as entries for the Italia Prize, AG, a mad and highly irreverent reworking of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and Mr.Vee, an attempt to find an audial equivalent for the play of mirrors in Velazquez’s Las Meninas. Many of them were also translated into German, for Germany has a rich tradition of the Hörspiel. But by the nineties the BBC had begun to change, The Third Programme had become Radio 3, a mainly musical station, and had lost its glittering array of distinguished producers, while in Germany too the effects of reunification were felt even in the rarefied world of the Hörspiel, and there was a severe reduction in their transmission of foreign plays. I greatly miss those intense two or three days of working with dedicated actors and producers of the highest calibre, but it looks as if the days of really innovative radio drama are gone for good.

VB: I have concentrated on your fiction in this interview, because I feel that that is where you’ve done your most important work. But there is a question anyone who has read your criticism as well as your fiction will want to have answered, and that is what you consider the relation between the two to be. You’ve pointed out again and again in your answers to my previous questions that fiction certainly does not spring for you from any desire to make critical or theoretical points. But where then do you see your criticism, which is fairly substantial, with books on subjects as diverse as the Bible, the sense of touch, the notion of trust, and Modernism, fitting into your oeuvre as a whole?

GJ: I said at the start, talking of the genesis of The Inventory, that I thought I would have to give up teaching because living with books, talking about books all the time, made me unduly self-conscious and made it impossible for me to write my own fiction. But I wrote that novel and stayed on teaching at Sussex for 35 years, the last fifteen or so part-time, teaching from October to March and having April to September to myself. This actually was ideal. I did something I enjoyed doing and that I felt was worthwhile, so that even if I got nowhere with my writing I could still feel, at the end of the year, that I had made a contribution of some kind to the country that had after all taken me in and given me free university education with a job at the end of it. On the other hand come April I was not exhausted mentally and physically, as I had been by the end of June when I taught full time. In fact I had a free conscience and I felt I had earned my time to myself, so that those months of April and May were utterly blissful and a time of great creative upsurge. Since I’ve retired completely I don’t get that lift and if the work is not going well I have nothing to take its place, while I rarely feel I’ve earned any sort of break.

But teaching literature and writing criticism are not the same thing at all. I have always felt that writers make the best critics, and love the critical writings of Proust, Woolf, Auden and Mann, and the comments on books and writers one finds in the letters of Lawrence and Eliot and Beckett. Writing about the books and authors you love seems a natural extension of writing your own fiction or poetry, a little less fraught of course, since the threat of failure is not so imminent – I will always be able to finish an essay on a writer I love or a topic that interests me, but that is certainly not true of a story or a novel. In fallow periods Pinter turned to writing film scripts. They are often very good, and clearly by him, but obviously not of the same importance as his major plays. Alas, no-one asks me to write film scripts, and that is why in fallow periods I have found myself accepting reviewing and other non-fiction commissions or even following up an idea and writing a whole non-fiction book, as with Touch.

The book on the Bible [The Book of God] was a little different. It’s more bound up both with my personal life and with my teaching. As I think I said earlier, I was not brought up religiously in any way, but on the other hand I always had a strong sense of being Jewish. Nevertheless when as an adolescent I had my religious crisis it was a Christian religious crisis. After all, I had been reading Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard, not Buber and Rosenzweig. Did I believe in Jesus Christ? Could I commit my life to such a set of beliefs? Like most adolescent religious crises, this one passed. I went on teaching Donne and Herbert, Dante and Dostoyevsky, but in my thirties I began to think again about my Jewish roots. It was really a cultural thing. At Oxford and then at Sussex I had felt that the friends I made shared a European outlook with me, but at some point it became clear to me that there was a part of me, the part that had its roots in my family and in Egypt, which was not catered for by the idea of Europe. Perhaps that point came when I received that ill-fated Somerset Maugham Prize and decided to use it (it was a travelling grant, but when the prize was taken away from me the University, in the form of its then Vice-Chancellor, Asa Briggs, generously insisted I take a term of paid leave, so the effect was the same) to return to Egypt with my mother to see my aunt and any old friends who might still be there. I had begun to teach a course on The Bible and English Literature with a remarkable Anglican colleague and friend, Stephen Medcalf. At Oxford we had often been told: ‘You can’t understand English literature before the twentieth century if you don’t know your Bible’, but no-one did anything about it. It seemed to us that Sussex, always open to new courses, would be the ideal place to try to fill that gap. It was a fascinating course, both in itself and for the variety of students it attracted – from those whose parents, reacting to their own parents, had brought them up in ignorance of the Bible and who now felt the need to find out about it as we at Oxford had felt the need to find out about Kafka or Kierkegaard, to those steeped in this or that version of a Bible-based religion and found it difficult to treat the text as the narrative it after all primarily is.

But I soon realised that to teach the course I really had to learn biblical Hebrew. So Stephen and I and several of our colleagues sat at the feet of a new recruit to Religious Studies, an Anglican priest called Michael Wadsworth, who was also a semiticist and had just completed a thesis under Geza Vermes at Oxford, and learned the rudiments of biblical Hebrew. We also found ourselves gathering informally to discuss books such as Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy, which had just been published, and which excitingly married biblical criticism with modern theory, and to revisit the first chapter of Erich Auerbach’s extraordinary Mimesis, written in Istanbul during the war and one of the founding texts of the School of European Studies. And gradually I found myself lecturing and writing on the Bible and on why (as it seemed to us) both the theological and the archaeological approaches to it, the two predominant scholarly approaches, left so much, perhaps even the essence of that strange great book untouched. And we found ourselves part of a movement that took in America, Britain and Israel, a movement with roots in the writings of Buber and of Jewish scholars like Umberto Cassuto, as well as Auerbach, but which had taken wing with the publication of Robert Alter’s Aspects of Biblical Narrative. We were a tiny minority in the sea of biblical scholarship, but nevertheless, a vocal and significant one. It is the only time I have understood what it means to feel part of an international scholarly community, and it was a very nice feeling.

I remember a walk over the Downs with my composer friend Jonathan Harvey in which I said to him: ‘I feel I have a book on the Bible there somewhere, but I’m not sure I want to devote the time to it it’s clearly going to need when I have so much fiction I want to write as well.’ And he said: ‘No, you’ve talked about it enough, and it sounds important to me, I really think you should do it. It will feed into your fiction, don’t worry.’ Over the next few years, as I tried to balance the teaching, writing fiction and thinking and then writing about it, I often cursed the moment when I had fallen under the spell of the Hebrew Bible, but in the end the book got done and, looking back, I’m glad I did it. Whether Jonathan was right about its feeding my fiction, I’ve no idea.

Book of God

VB: Looking over your collected works and the experience I’ve had reading them, I’m reminded of Barthes and his comment that some of his best reading occurs with the book face down on his lap, staring into the middle distance. There is something so potent that happens when your writing comes into contact with my imagination. There’s a concept you may have heard of – the ‘unthought known’ – created by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas. It refers to the immense store of knowledge that we own unwittingly, having never put it into words because we became aware of it in a wordless fashion. Bollas says: ‘There is in each of us a fundamental split between what we think we know and what we know but may never be able to think.’ Some of it will never be articulated and so, he says it’s important to ‘form a relationship to the mysterious unavailablity of much of our knowledge.’ And somehow, this is how I feel reading you. You take me towards the unthought places without ever speaking them yourself. It’s the spirit of the Between, if you like, who has his own chapter in Goldberg. Does that make any sense to you?

GJ: Yes, it makes a lot of sense. It’s what I look for in my writing, what I want to read and can’t find in the writing of others. I’ve never read Bollas, but what he says makes perfect sense to me. I wouldn’t even call it a ‘fundamental split’ – I think rather that our bodies know more than we do and that the task of art is to find forms and words that will allow the body to speak.

VB: Finally, Hotel Andromeda, which I read for the first time a few weeks ago. Your most recent novel and, for me, one of your finest. How did you come to bring together Joseph Cornell’s artworks and the trouble in Chechnya?

GJ: I began to think of writing a novel about Joseph Cornell back in the eighties. I think it may have been the show of his work at the Whitechapel in 1981 that set me thinking, but I’d also seen some photos of him in old age taken by Hans Namuth. In his back garden. In his ‘study’. He was living alone by then in the house in the wonderfully named Utopia Parkway he had lived in all his adult life with his domineering mother and his brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy. He looks haunted in those photographs, on the threshold between life and death. I longed to do something with those photographs.

The problem for me was that there seemed to be no ‘centre’, to either the works or the man in the photos. And from what I could find out about him he seemed both utterly focussed, knowing exactly what he wanted and yet strangely ego-less. I’m drawn to such figures. Kafka, obviously, but Vermeer too, and Bonnard – the opposite of such dynamic artists as Lawrence, Rembrandt, Picasso. And it seems to be a minor but powerful American type: Melville’s Bartleby, Emily Dickinson, Hopper – to set against the Whitmans and Mailers and Pollocks. Fascinating, haunting figures, but in their emptiness, their stillness, their lack of forward thrust, going against the very nature of the novel. Anyway, I dropped the idea and went on to other things.

However, Cornell went on haunting me and towards the end of the nineties a biography finally appeared, Deborah Solomons’ Utopia Parkway. It’s a brilliant example of the genre, sensitive to both the life and the art, neither obtrusive nor evasive. Cornell comes through as an even more curious figure than I’d imagined, neither quite an outsider artist like Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor in whose apartment, after his death, was found an enormous stack of vast paintings telling the epic story of a group of little girls with penises pursued by hunters, nor quite a professional artist like Duchamp and de Kooning, both of whom he knew. The catalogue for the recent wonderful Royal Academy exhibition of his work is silent on all this, or rather, makes a conscious effort to show us Cornell as a mainstream artist. I can see why – you don’t want to present him as a freak. The Royal Academy is a serious institution with a deservedly high reputation. Nonetheless, it has to be admitted that Joseph Cornell was decidedly odd. He was infatuated with one young starlet or ballerina after another – and not just starlets. Susan Sontag was one of his brief passions, and young waitresses in their uniforms too cast their spell upon him. He would make them boxes which he would send them, befriending them and even occasionally helping them financially, but he remained a bachelor and probably a virgin all his life, living out his days in the house in Utopia Parkway with his mother and his sick brother Robert. He found it difficult to communicate with people yet had a huge number of acquaintances and admirers; he made avant-garde films and works of art that have lasted better than those of his more famous contemporaries, such as Pavel Tchelitchew, as the RA exhibition testifies, yet he never put pen to paper or held a camera. And so on. My feeling is, that like Glenn Gould, say, he was at the Asperger’s end of the spectrum, odder than fellow-artists but not totally cut off from society.

And it’s not just the biography that shows these contradictions: the art does as well. Many of the boxes and collages are rather twee, with their dolls and ballerinas and the evident longing for a world of lost innocence. This is an aspect of nineteenth century sensibility I am not overfond of, and I rejoice at its deflation by the Modernists. On the other hand there are plenty of works that are to my mind among the greatest of the twentieth century: the Hotel series; the aviaries; the beautiful abstract homage to Emily Dickinson, his films, which you can see on YouTube – and I would urge everyone to have a look at the beautiful, original and haunting three-minute film, Angel.

Solomons’ biography renewed my interest in Cornell and made me keener than ever to write a novel about him. But it also laid out starkly the inner problems of such an undertaking. I couldn’t write it in the first person because there was no ‘first person’ there. A film like Angel is so haunting because it is so still, so directionless, not just lacking human presence but making us question human anguish and striving by its very form and content – how then could I have a first person at the heart of my novel? And it’s the same with the third person – Le Rouge et le Noir and The Adventures of Augie March present us with the same thing: a young man, freed from ancestry and tradition, out to make his way in the world. This is what the novel was created to depict, and it does it supremely well. But I am drawn to its opposite – the small un-American novel, if you like, the opposite of the Great American Novel. And Cornell is my perfect subject – except that for that very reason it seemed impossible to write about him – as if to do so was a violation of his very being. Yet I’m a novelist because narrative is what I love and can do – even if it is unorthodox narrative.

Anyhow, though I tried to write my Cornell book I just couldn’t. There is an anecdote in Solomons about Cornell, who, late in life, when he was living alone in the house in Utopia Parkway, loved to entertain his young and beautiful female friends to tea. But he was exceedingly mean. Once, having invited three young artists and starlets to tea, he produced one tea bag, which he passed from cup to cup, talking all the while.

These conversations of his were like those of Glenn Gould, long rambling mumbles, barely comprehensible. He would, like Gould, call friends up on the phone and talk to them for hours. They would grunt every now and then, go off to prepare a meal or answer the door, and when they returned to the phone he was still talking. And for a while I toyed with the idea of writing a novel about just such an occasion, with my hero taking his friends round his house, meandering off into the past, barely aware of their presence. But it didn’t work. Cornell is not the stuff of Bernhard-like novels. His oddity and his genius does not express itself in words.

So the project stalled again. But this time it wouldn’t let me go. Once again Proust came to my rescue: if you reach an impasse try incorporating the impasse into the novel. I had been toying with another idea, a novel with a form I am very fond of, what I call the X form, where two people in firmly established positions at opposite ends of the spectrum, slowly change sides in the course of the book, each in some sense becoming the other. I had tried it with two couples in In a Hotel Garden and again in Making Mistakes, and I had tried it out with just two people in a little story called ‘Brothers’, and I had been thinking of a larger canvas, a novel about two sisters, one in some sedentary job in bourgeois London, the other a nurse or perhaps running an orphanage in some war-torn country like Chechnya. And it came to me that the sedentary London-based sister could be an art historian writing, or trying to write, about Joseph Cornell. And then might the house she lived in itself become a sort of Cornell box, filled with other voices, other lives?

And so the book got written.

VB: What lies ahead for you? May we hope for a new novel?

GJ: I hope so too. I can’t conceive of a life without writing and just hope I can go on till I drop.

—Gabriel Josipovici & Victoria Best


Victoria Best small photo

Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Josipovici’s mother was born in Egypt and living in France at the time the Second World War began. She and her son narrowly survived, as Jews, the Nazi persecution. She managed to return to Egypt in 1945.
Jan 052015


As writers, I often think we treat language as something to be dominated and controlled rather than something to be lived with and lived through. In this way, we become detached from language, indeed become fearful of it. Not so with Ian Duhig. Duhig’s poetry while steeped in form trusts the sound of language, its musicality, to lead the way as he relentlessly explores the complex connections between a seemingly diverse range of subjects. Since our knowledge of the world, however, comes not through our comprehension of its elements but rather the relationship between these elements, Duhig’s poetic gaze is focused exactly where it needs to be. The insight provided emerges from a writer who dwells within his words and is fearlessly willing to follow where they might take him.

Duhig was born in London to Irish parents and he says, “’London-Irish’ is definitely how we thought of ourselves growing up.” ‘Grand Union Bridge’ (based on a film poem with Alastair Cook), he tells me, explains his relationship with Ireland as a child of immigrants. ‘?’ he says, “demonstrates the sort of skewed understanding of great events being at one remove from them as a second generation Irish youth might have, while ‘A Double Bolide’ deals with a real character I discovered by accident recently, who both the Irish and English would like to keep out of history entirely as an embarrassment to both, to the one a traitor, to the other a paid informant.”

It may be fanciful to imagine that this hyphenated identity led to his formal interest in connectivity within his poetry but, be that as it may, fanciful is good enough for me.

—Gerard Beirne


I was the eighth child in my family and the first born in England where they’d moved to so my father could find work – he’d served in the Irish army but there was nothing for him in 50s Tipperary when he left. My Mother knew a huge amount of Irish poetry by heart, which was how they learned it at school in her youth. I grew up listening to that in a London-Irish community where poetry was still valued and however often we visited “home” (as Ireland was always called) the place for me was made out of words more than earth. I explored the world of Irish poetry more than the country. When I did live there it was in Belfast, where I ran a hostel for young offenders, but I came into contact with the work of an astonishingly-accomplished generation of Northern Irish poets – Heaney of course, but also Longley, Mahon and the amazing Muldoon. I published my first poetry in The Honest Ulsterman and then stumbled off on my own journey. There’s that old joke about the Irish boomerang – it doesn’t come back it only sings about coming back – and there is a sense of estrangement from home which is central to the Irish tradition and I’ve always felt at home with estrangement.

—Ian Duhig

Grand Union Bridge

I’d take this bridge across Paddington Cut
where PC Dixon was shot in The Blue Lamp
when I’d go to the cinema robbed by his killer,
the teenager Riley, with his pal Spud Murphy,
betraying Irish lines from this canal’s cutters
up to the likes of my family, over to find work.

Is it called Paddington because of the Paddys?
I’d get asked at school. Back after a lifetime,
from the Grand Union’s winter skin of black ice
I make my song this coat, the old Cut it’s cloth,
to slip into the otherworld of the eternally young
who would only age if they touched our land.

I remember that young Irish suicide landed here,
her own gas inflating the mae west of her flesh,
turned over again, an iceberg of tears, melting,
told the fairy story, promised a gold ring, falling
with child, into this wedding dress of water silk.
O commemorate me where there is water…

I remember police writing in their notebooks.
If you want to know the time, ask one of them.
He knows it can be suspended like a sentence,
although back then the sentence for a Riley
would be for him to dance the Paddington Jig,
in the measure called the Home Office Drop.

But PC Dixon would rise again from the dead,
go on to star in a much-loved television show
that was as black and white as its writers’ plots,
a show running softly for over twenty-one years,
the length of a whole youth back in those days,
birth to the wedding cake with black icing. Cut.



Of all my questions still unanswered

regarding the heroical-pathetic Easter Rising,

such as whether England might have kept faith

when World War I was all said and done

or which Castle cretin sent in the Lancers

against well-trained urban guerillas,

whether Constance Markiewicz really shot

Police Constable Michael Lahiff,

whether Ireland would have been better served

if James Connolly had stayed in bed,

if Captain Bowen-Colthurst was mad

before he was sent to Ireland

and, if so, why nobody noticed it

or at least some behavioural giveaways

or if madness was considered acceptable deportment

for officers of His Majesty’s forces

or why anybody should have been surprised

that starving Dubliners would loot the shops,

my one, persisting, small, ignoble nag

dismissed impatiently by the committed over years

is why exactly was the General Post Office

still open on the Bank Holiday?


A Double Bolide

Scientific dating tests connect the Hambleton pallasite
from Kilburn’s White Horse with the 1783 Great Meteor,
a brilliant double bolide heard then exploding over York.
In another report of the event in the London Magazine,

an officer on a British warship moored north of Ireland
related that a little time after he first noticed the meteor,
“in the north-east quarter, he saw it moving back again,
the contrary way to which it came” in Sternean fashion.

Perhaps it presaged that year’s Irish stage premiere:
‘Tristram Shandy: A Sentimental Bagatelle in Two Acts’.
This adaptation, playing up patriotic aspects of the text,
was by Leonard McNally, whose book on the law fixed

our criminal trial standard of “beyond reasonable doubt”
indebting future civil libertarians to this Dublin barrister,
a man who came to play many parts during his own life,
with this starring role only coming to light after his death:

McNally was a founding member of the United Irishmen,
informing on them for pay and, when acting as counsel
for the Rising’s leaders, he collaborated with the Crown
to guarantee their convictions beyond reasonable doubt.

McNally was also the lyricist of that sentimental ballad
Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill which invented the cliché
a rose without a thorn and was a favourite of George III’s
since its first airing in the year of the French Revolution.

O the pikes must be together by the risin’ of the moon
declares one sentimental ballad about the Risin’ of ‘98,
reminding me that Sterne coined the word ‘sentimental’,
how his name meant star in the Hanoverians’ language.



Weber could not tell a Punjabi from a Kilkenny man.
-Christy Campbell, ‘The Maharajah’s Box’

The former prospective Tory parliamentary candidate for Whitby
Maharajah Duleep Singh, Sikh ‘Chess King’ in “the Great Game”,
slipped into Russia as Patrick Casey, the Republican dynamitard.

He bore proposals for stationing Irish volunteers on their border
to guard the building of a railway for the Czar’s invasion forces,
effecting his aim of the liberation of the Indian sub-continent.

The King maintained clandestine links with Russian intelligence
(noted the Department for the Supression of Thugee and Dacoity)
through the Aryan League of Honour, rogue Calcutta Theosophists,

their agent in the British Isles being Yeats’ ‘Mohini Chatterjee’,
who misinformed him on Vedantic philosophy, so Yeats confused
Brahman, the Supreme Being, with Brahmin, Chatterjee’s caste.

Yeats’ ‘Mohini Chatterjee’ “quotes” his guru: “I have been a king,
I have been a slave”, although the next verse goes on to state
Mohini Chatterjee/Spoke these, or words like these…” How like?

Poets tell lies and cause confusion too. Look at Plato’s ‘Republic’.
Even ‘Campbell’, surname of the supplier of this poem’s epigraph,
means ‘Crooked mouth’ in Gaelic. Check that with a MacDonald.



Poetry wants to be a contagion — Jorie Graham

At the fleapit in town
I watch ‘Pontypool’,
“a semantic schlock
zombie apocalypse.”

Set on a radio station,
news that stays news
is of flesh-eating mobs
who can’t speak French

as airborne plague rides
honeyed English words,
a xenotext in the matrix
of Canadian intercourse.

Like some new love poet,
our hero, the shock jock
broadcasts to survivors
how he spread the virus,

how meaning is Plague
to be purged from words,
we mustn’t make sense
to return to our senses,

how life means death
in a language of sin,
love’s a fatal disease
and to kill means kiss

then kisses the woman
his own words infected
who asked to not to die
a Donne Newfoundland,

but live where zombies
are all Hungry Horaces,
searching for the poet
in her disjecta membra.

—Ian Duhig


Ian Duhig has written six books of poetry, most recently Pandorama (Picador 2010). He has worked on productions of a wide range of music from the medieval to the avant-garde and this year he published Digressions (Smokestack), the book of a project with the artist Philippa Troutman based around Laurence Sterne’s home, Shandy Hall in Yorkshire. He has won the Forward Best Poem Prize, the National Poetry Competition twice and three times been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize.


Oct 042013


Julie Bruck won the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry last year for her third collection MONKEY RANCH. She is from Montreal but lives in San Francisco. Her other two books (all three published by Brick Books) are THE END OF TRAVEL (1999) and THE WOMAN DOWNSTAIRS (1993). Herewith NC offers a wonderful interview Julie recently gave NC’s Contributing Editor Ann Ireland plus a trove of poems. By mysterious Fate or Synchronicity or sheer Coincidence (still astonishing) it just so happens that Julie Bruck will be reading in Fredericton (where dg is the Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick, in case you’ve forgotten) Saturday and Sunday at Ross Leckie’s famous Poetry Weekend. According to the latest reading schedule (there is a cast of dozens it seems; never so many poets in once place—difficult to organize; a veritable extravaganza of poets with a huge party at Sharon McCartney‘s house where DG will partake of the Barking Squirrel), Julie Bruck will be reading at Gallery 78 Saturday at 2pm and again at 8pm on Sunday at Memorial Hall.



Ann Ireland: Your poems slow the reader down so that we pay attention to moments that might fly by, unobserved. In your first book the poem CLOSURE feels like  a statement of poetic intent. Thoughts on this?

Julie Bruck:


Who hasn’t had days when the door
stayed  ajar; the important business call
in which you meant to sound brisk
but goodbye came out bye-bye?
Or when you talked over someone
saying what they’ve tried for years
to say;  hung up in the middle
of I love you, or got hung up on.
A plane takes off and a small child
turns from the cloud-streaked
window, asks, what happened?,
and sobs for the rest of the trip.
Poof!–gone are her grandfather’s
delicate nose-hairs, the sunlit world
with its parking-lot  demarcations.
There’s just this terrible shaking
between the past and future.
You want  to know when it stops.

There’s  a poem I haven’t thought about in a long time! When it was written, circa 1990,  I wouldn’t have pegged  the poem for an ars poetica, but you’re definitely on to something. I’m a person who mourns for what has yet to be lost, for whom the concept of “closure” is laughable. I refuse to come to terms with how provisional and temporary life is. Is that a form of arrested development? I suspect so.  Meanwhile, looking slowly and clearly at even the smallest things is an attempt to wrest a snippet of meaning from the passing moment, or to restore the dignity or beauty—even the embarrassment—inherent in what can be so ephemeral.

If I revised that poem today, I’d change “delicate” to “wiry,” a more concise word for how an old man’s nose hair looks to a child. I’m starting to  understand why poets like Stanley Kunitz and Donald Justice kept changing and reissuing their early poems in their late years. I’d also cross-examine those semi-colons. But please, stop me before I start. What a slippery slope.

AI:You write of place, of growing up in Montreal. How did it affect your writing to move to San Francisco?

JB: I have a long, intimate connection to Montreal, the kind you don’t get twice in one lifetime. It took almost a decade before I felt like I lived in San Francisco, as seductive as this place can be. When I was new to the Bay Area, I once complained to (the poet) Heather McHugh about homesickness, and she said something to the effect of, you never leave where you come from, you simply carry it with you. At the time, this advice sounded more like one of Stuart Smalley’s Daily Affirmations on Saturday Night Live, but Heather, who also has roots in Canada, is the smartest person I know. Sure enough, as both cities took up residence in my writing, I came to feel both more grounded in California and more connected to where I’m from. That was an enormous relief, though I should have had more faith: so many writers whose work I admire retain a creative foot– if not both feet–in their place of origin. James Thurber said, “The clocks that strike in my dreams are often the clocks of Columbus.” My chimes will always be the CBC’s “long dash, followed by a period of silence,” though I’m beginning to  take comfort in the emergency siren that sounds here every Tuesday at noon, with its warbling reminder that “this is just a test.”

Julie Bruck 4

AI: How might you describe your upbringing, the household you grew up in?

JB: Idyllic and fraught. My dad, who died just days before his 98th birthday this March, was the president of a textile company when there still was a large domestic textile industry in Canada, so our family was quite affluent. I grew up in a big Georgian greystone in Westmount, and my two older brothers and I went to a private school a few blocks away. By the time I was nine, my brothers had left for colleges in the U.S., and their absence had a big effect on me, though I didn’t know it at the time. On one hand, I gained a great deal of solitude in the big house (a state I still crave today), and on the other, I became an only child, wedged between my parents, absorbing the dissonance from two well-meaning people who never should have married. My father was, despite his liberal politics and fascination with Thomas Jefferson, very traditional in his family expectations, while my mother wasn’t one for the bell jar. While my dad would come home wrung out from dealing with budding labor unions, my mother was organizing anti-poverty or clothing drives on behalf of the children of these very same people. So, while I enjoyed all the pleasures that my father’s work brought us, I also received a clear message from my mother, which was that our largesse was built on someone else’s labor. Something was always rotten in the state of Denmark, and I began to look at things from a slight remove, a stance I still have. These particular family matters are things I’d just begun to revisit in Monkey Ranch, and I don’t think I’ve quite exhausted them, as my long answer to your question suggests.

AI: When did you start reading poetry? Were you read poetry as a child? Which poets first excited you?

JB: My mother read Edward Lear and other children’s verse out loud when I was little, and my father liked to quote Ogden Nash, but aside from a voracious appetite for British children’s mysteries with ponies in them, I never became an enthusiastic young reader. My parents loved to read, and this may have been a reaction, I don’t know. I do know that I wanted to be outside, preferably with real animals instead of imaginary ones. It wasn’t until my early 20’s that I started to read actively. Those were tough years, and I was looking for meaning and excitement wherever I could find it. I read lots of Canadian women poets, especially Atwood. I had much reading ahead of me. If I’d known how much, I might have fled for the hills.

AI: You began training as a visual artist. What caused the change in direction? Do you still make visual art or is your highly visual poetry taking care of that?

JB: After a few years of photography, using both 35mm and large format cameras, I was frustrated with needing so much equipment to make  such quiet, simple things.  I’d just completed my freshman year at The San Francisco Art Institute, and the little kitchen in my apartment doubled as a darkroom. Since I was using traditional archival methods, one day it dawned on me that I was probably washing my fruits and vegetables in selenium toner or gold chloride.  To make a long story shorter, the simplicity of a pen and a notebook looked good. And of course, poetry is another way of framing what one sees, one that uses revision instead of dodging and burning to fill in the shadows and set the brightness, the contrast, the tensions in the work.  There are plenty of kinships between the two mediums.

This week, I stumbled across a familiar bright orange box at the local thrift shop, the same rare, soft Agfa portrait paper I used to use.  Someone had ripped open the light-proof black wrapping inside the box–to inspect the contents, I guess–exposing and ruining every sheet. I stood there for a few minutes, feeling very sad and very analog.

I still have my Olympus OM-1, but it needs repair, which is both hard to find and expensive. Eventually,  I’ll have it fixed, even if I take the film to Walgreen’s, and have the images digitized.

AI: How is the writing scene in Montreal different from SF?

JB: Montreal’s Anglophone writing scene is very small and intimate, while the Bay Area’s writing “communities”  are multiple and widely scattered.  In a way, they mirror the topography here, which has scores of neighborhoods folded into these dramatic hills. If you chose to, you could attend a literary event every night in San Francisco, and never touch down, but it would be hard to get any work done.

AI: Did you know any writers when you moved to SF?

JB: My spouse, Lewis Buzbee, is a writer and a third-generation Californian, so I got to know local writers through him. I’ve also made writerly friends on my own here, but  much of my writing life remains tied to Canada, and  I still exchange work with friends in Montreal. I was 40 when I picked up stakes, and these old affections transcend geography. They’re akin to what Leonard Cohen lovingly refers to as his “neurotic affiliations” in Montreal. They run deep.


AI: Advantages to having a foot in Canada and the USA. Any disadvantages?

JB: Quite honestly, I never  plan  much according to practical advantages and disadvantages, for better and for worse. I’ve just followed my dumb heart so far. Except for parenthood, which changes everything,  my daily life here isn’t so different from what it was in  Montreal. Like most writers, I  struggle to carve  time  from work and other responsibilities to get a few quiet hours to work .

I sometimes wonder whether living in San Francisco isn’t more like being in Oz than living in the U.S. It’s such a left-leaning, progressive place, it’s easy to lose sight of the rest of the country from here. Meanwhile, growing up as an Anglophone in Quebec might have been the perfect training for living a bit of a split existence. I can just add one more hyphen. When I lived in Canada, I had a foot in the States.  Now I have a foot in Canada. When you come down to it, isn’t that how most writers live–with one foot in the immediate surround, and another inside  the work that goes on in their heads? Ugh, I’m mangling this metaphor so badly, I should have to walk around with a foot in my head.

AI: What kind of work do you do in SF?

JB: For nearly nine years, I’ve taught  year-round poetry classes for adults at The Writing Salon in the Mission district, as well as working privately with a few individual writers.  During the academic year, I also tutor part-time at The University of San Francisco, and pick up various freelance gigs. This is an expensive city, and we have a teenager, so I scramble a fair bit.

AI: Thoughts on teaching poetry? What is it that you teach your students?

JB: If there’s one thing I try to convey above all else, it’s the importance  of breaking the tyranny of  pre-determined subject matter, just enough to allow for real discoveries to happen in the writing. This is something  I’ve had to learn and relearn myself, and  each time I  “relearn”  it is an exhilaration.

Many beginners–and not just a few seasoned writers–feel that they can’t write without that familiar pressure in the chest, the one associated with something particularly painful in their lives. They’re carrying such a heavy biscuit when they sit down to write, it’s no wonder they avoid their desks.  What I try to teach, and it’s often a challenge since we’re so often bound by our versions of “what actually happened,” is that whether you’re exploring metaphor by writing from the point of view of a lychee nut, or taking on the challenges of some new and unfamiliar form, it’s the engagement with language that matters most.  If divorce is on your mind, that lychee nut might be cleaved, that delicious word that means both torn apart and joined, and what would that suggest about separation and loss? Maybe a villanelle’s patterns of repetition won’t narrow your possible word choices, but actually expand them, pointing to a word you’d never have considered, but which couldn’t be more apt. These kinds of playful engagements are, I think, the best ways  to discover meaning  you couldn’t have predicted, and to make poems that are fresher, deeper, and more relevant to the reader. In that state of mind, your heart rate goes up just reading the dictionary. You come to realize that your angle of approach can vary wildly, but your own themes  will always surface, and that  no-one’s going to take away your voice.

Hmm, I notice that the teacherly “you” has infiltrated this conversation.

Monkey Ranch

AI: How has your work changed in form and content over the three books?

JB: I hope the work has become more expansive. Some poems from the first two books might confuse precision with depth, though I’m likely not the best judge of that.  The books span 20 years. I’ve grown older, had a kid, and the newer poems should, to steal a photographic term, have a wider angle of view. Teaching has also been helpful to me as a writer.  I decided early on that I couldn’t impose anything on my students I wasn’t willing to try, and I think that kind of playfulness, coupled with the game exuberance I see in so many of my students has  tempered a streak of preciousness in me. It’s made the writing more fun.

AI: You’re not prolific ( I should talk)—can you talk about your writing process?

JB: Yes, I’m awfully slow, but most of that has to do with being an ardent reviser. And often, it’s only when I see the shadow  of a manuscript emerging from what had been just a stack of drafts, that I can finish certain pieces, since the revisions involve not only what’s on that particular page, but how that poem might interact with its new neighbors, in its new town.

AI: Thoughts on traditional poetic forms and metrics?  How important is sound?

JB: I like the constraints of traditional forms, and the surprising ways those limitations can be freeing, but I’ve only included a few loose sonnets in my books. That may change in the next collection, since I’m having a good time with certain fixed forms at the moment.

Sound matters a great deal. Free verse is really just variations on basic iambic pentameter  (I hate to see de eve’nin sun go downta-dum,ta-dum,ta-dum, ta-tum,ta-dum–the sound of our heart-beats), and patterns of stress are an essential part of a poem’s tension and meaning. I’ve never written strict metrical verse, but my ear is tuned to where the stresses fall in a poem, as well as to alliteration,  assonance and consonance, and to how line breaks manipulate sound.

AI: How does a poem gather in your head?

JB: A poem can begin almost anywhere,  but the most common scenario starts as an itch that I can’t quite scratch. There might be two or three seemingly unrelated images or bits of conversation or musical phrases, and an intuition that these things are connected. The real work lies in finding that connective tissue, and in the process, discovering why this particular poem wants to be written, what gesture it wants to make. I once heard Robert Pinsky describe some poems in terms of their “infinitives.” He looked at several pieces for the particular movement or gesture in each one; to seek, to lament, to persuade.  That’s an approach I’ve found to be very helpful, as long as I don’t close in on the poem’s infinitive too soon, and exclude other possibilities the poem may hold.  I always want to let the poem lead, and I think a reader knows when a writer has wrested control of the thing too early. Those poems feel predetermined, as if the writer has decided the poem’s an elegy, while the poem itself feels resistant –like it really wants to blow the deceased’s cover.

Very rarely, a finished poem just lands in my lap. But those usually come when I’ve been working hard on thorny pieces, or ones I’ve had to abandon. I no longer stand around waiting for lightning to strike. Life’s too short.

The End of Travel

AI: Do you see yourself as having a ‘poetic project’ that continues as a through- line in your books. What is it that you seek to engage with, to investigate over the years?

JB: Probably, ibid: That life’s too short. Occasionally, I’ll concoct grand plans for what’s next, but in the end the work seems to create its own path. I have to trust that there’s more than one note to be struck concerning the fact that we’re temporary–I think the history of literature certainly bears that out–and that those notes can also  be ones of dark humor, and even joy.

AI: In Monkey Ranch: “Snapshot at Uxmal, 1972,” you fix on what appears to  be a photograph of you as a teenager with your photographer mother. Mother pays attention to detail in her work, lots of zoom lens; father speaks of the – ‘vast scale of what he saw while heading off to visit larger ruins.’ You remark on the teenager in the photo: ‘Her father’s impatience hasn’t flared in her yet, / though she carries that too, an unstruck match.’  Care to comment?

JB: That poem arose from coming across a photo I’d taken of my mother, resting against a temple wall with her cameras. At fifteen, I was heavily identified with her. I would never have guessed that aspects of my father I also carried–his single-mindedness among them–were the very things that would let me differentiate myself from her later on. When a child acts as a buffer, or a compensation for a shaky marriage,  growing up and away can feel like a betrayal of that close parent. It can also anger the more distant parent, who needs the child to fill in for them emotionally, and that creates additional pressure on the kid.

That’s a lot of baggage for such a little poem to carry. I hope the reader doesn’t need all that information to feel the latent tension between a mother and daughter, but it is what underlies the “unstruck match.” A lot of young people feel  they are responsible for maintaining their family dynamic, and that opting out  of their assigned role is tantamount to setting fire to the family.

AI: I note several references to Elizabeth Bishop. How has she influenced your thinking and writing?

JB: I’ve been reading Bishop for many years–the poems and prose, all her collections of letters, and every biography out there. In truth, I have no idea whether my great affection for her work has had any direct influence me or not, but I’ve often felt changed as a person by reading her. What I love best about her poems is how the emotional pressure of what’s left unsaid seeps through. All she has to do is describe that greasy little doily or the “hirsute begonia” in  her poem “Filling Station,” and I’m awash in both beauty and loneliness.

AI: Do you need any particular circumstances to be able to write?

JB: An empty flat is best but very rare, so I use the circumstances at hand. At the busiest times of the year, I have a standing, weekly writing appointment with my notebook in a parked car. As long as words get put down on a regular basis, I can live with myself, and I suspect this makes me easier to live with. I had a residency at The MacDowell  Colony many years ago, and I’ve kept a little essence of that kind of stillness tucked away inside. When I need it, I pour out just a few drops. A tincture of quiet. One day, I hope to get back there and refill it for the next decade or two.

AI: Which poets should we read, dead and alive?

JB: I’m a promiscuous reader, so I’ll narrow it to (mostly) living writers in my country of residence. I have two current enthusiasms. The first is for what the Buddhists call “monkey mind,” meaning poems that dramatize the movement of mind,  with all those meanderings and loop-de-loops, though never at the expense of clarity and communication.  This would include work  by Lucia Perillo, Bob Hicok, Paul Muldoon, Jim Harrison, Nikki Finney, and C.K. Williams, just for starters.

A second excitement  comes from  poems that compress and distill, and here I think of Charles Simic, Kay Ryan,  Rae Armantrout and Jane Kenyon. Of course, this excludes poets who do both. It’s an impossible question, and if we throw Canada in the mix, I’m overwhelmed. Suffice to say, I can’t wait to get my paws on a copy of Sue Goyette’s new book, “Ocean.”


AI: Californians are very outdoorsy, hiking and camping etc. You?

JB: Such a waste! I’m an urban creature, happy with daily walks or runs in  Golden Gate Park. Occasionally we leave the neighborhood to be astounded by the natural beauty of the state, but at heart we are city rats. You don’t really need to leave San Francisco to feel connected to nature. We have the shoreline of the Bay, the Presidio,  Crissy Field, all the boats,  and the fog blowing in and out. In our neighborhood, the fog tends to be in, which lends a winterish character to the summers.

AI: What music do you listen to? You refer to Richard Thompson a couple of times in your work.

JB: I’ve always been a devoted  fan of Richard Thompson, both as a guitarist and songwriter, and there are other singer-songwriters on my list (Patty Larkin, high among them), but  my  own playlists have been eclipsed  by my 15-year-old’s . She has the vinyl collection, and the biggest speakers in the house. That means I hear a lot of  Vampire Weekend  and  The Vaccines, among others. Hardship? I think not.

— Ann Ireland & Julie Bruck


Poems from Monkey Ranch



[SPACESPACE]My husband said he felt human again
after days of stomach flu, made himself French toast,
[SPACESPACESPACESPACESPACE]then lay down again to be sure.

[SPACESPACE]I took our daughter to the zoo,
where she stood on small flowered legs, transfixed by the drone
[SPACESPACESPACESPAC]a sound more retch than howl.

[SPACESPACE]Singing monkey, my girl says.
She is well-rested. We all are. As we slept, cold spring air arrived,
[SPACESPACESPACES]blown from the Bay where San Quentin

[SPACESPACE]Tonight, my girl will tell her father
(a man restored, even grateful, for a day or so), about what she
[SPACESPACESPACESPACESPACE]saw in the raised cage.
[SPACESPACESPACESPACE]Monkey singing, she will tell him,

[SPACESPACE]and later, tell every corner of her cool dark room,
until the crib springs ease because she’s run out of joy,
[SPACESPACESPACESPACESPACE]and fallen asleep on her knees.



Leaning into the sun-warmed stone, she must
be fifty, still beautiful, her strong frame
easy inside her loose shirt and jeans.

He’s gone to a larger ruin for the day,
someplace deeper in the jungle, more
challenging to reach by jeep or tank.

Here, where the early Mayans worshipped
the sun, appeased their gods with routine
live sacrifice, she will photograph only

small details in black and white. Later,
he’ll describe the jungle’s colours, ornate
bird plumage, the vast scale of what he saw.

She will need the afternoon to document a single
weed growing through a crack in the pediment,
a candy wrapper blown against an ancient step.

And there is the daughter, fifteen and not
quite as sullen as she’s going to be, shouldering
the pack of lenses, her mother’s fine-grain film.

Her father’s impatience hasn’t flared in her yet,
though she carries that too, an unstruck match,
trailing her mother through the tall, dry grass.



I am watching my mother’s neighbourhood
explode on live TV, when Ruth, my father’s
girlfriend, calls from her renovated kitchen,
reports she is baking an apple cake.

On screen, one more disaffected youth
in a trenchcoat, and bodies–trauma units
filling up fast with the dead and injured.
My father is 92, she is ten years younger.

They live in her B.C. apple orchard
after a twenty-five-year affair, which
somehow slipped under everyone’s radar,
lasting half of my parents’ marriage.

Are you watching the news? I ask.
Yes, she says, terrible isn’t it?
If I’d been able to speak, I would
have said, Yes Ruth, I haven’t reached

my mother: perhaps she’s dead.
But my father needs to talk
about an insight he’s gleaned
from a Steinbeck novel-on-tape.

I ask whether he’s seen the news.
Awful, isn’t it? he says,
and returns to East of Eden.
It is already dark in Montreal.

Blue police lights bounce on wet
streets and buildings I knew better
than my own hand, everything
cordoned with yellow crime-tape.

Once, I’d thought we’d all driven
my father away: conversation at the family
table was fast, digression the rule.
He’d often dozed off by dessert.

Guns drawn, a SWAT team flanks
the door to my mother’s building.
My father wraps up Steinbeck, inquires after
my health, says their kitchen smells good:

Ruth took those apples from the neighbour’s orchard.
She swears stolen apples have more flavor.



I used to watch my supple mother
bend to collect shells on the beach.
They piled up on the porch furniture–
she rarely threw anything back.
Look at how the water’s made
a Henry Moore hole in this one
she’d say, look–but I didn’t want
to be told what to look at, how to see,
didn’t want her using my head as
a spare room for her own, a self-
storage unit, though I couldn’t have
said so then, not even to myself.
Instead, I’d get a knot in my chest
that tightened on cue, I’d darken.
Now, when I gaze at my daughter,
she raises her eyes to mine in defiance:
Stop looking at me, she’ll growl, and why
am I surprised? I was looking at her brave brow,
the profile that’s her own and no-one else’s,
because yes, she’s a physical extension
of her father and me–I’m looking at what
we made, and she knows this in her marrow, puts
on her 100-yard stare and turns her face away:
all I can see is the tip of one ear,
sunlit almost to transparency,
its delicate runnels and inlets
shaped, as if by water.



Poems from End of Travel



It’s rare, slow as a creaking of oars,
and she is so frail and short of breath
on the street, the stairs–tiny, Lilliputian,
one wonders how they do it.
So, wakened by the shiftings of their bed nudging
our shared wall as a boat rubs its pilings,
I want it to continue, before her awful
hollow coughing fit begins. And when
they have to stop (always), until it passes, let
us praise that resumed rhythm, no more than a twitch
really, of our common floorboards. And how
he’s waited for her before pushing off
in their rusted vessel, bailing when they have to,
but moving out anyway, across the black water.



“I felt as if I was being kidnapped, even if I wasn’t.”
–Elizabeth Bishop

Imagine Elizabeth six years old,
being torn from this narrow province,
a train’s headlamp dividing the dark, south-west,
all the way to Worcester, Massachussetts, 1916.
Our bus flies down the same curved road,
past the sign for Pictou County, and a yellow
diamond warning magically of Flying Stones.
The skies are wild and northern. I can still
hear the aggrieved honking of the Canada goose
I disturbed this morning in the Wildlife Management Area,
and now, by the sign ordering us to YEILD
in the late half-light, I almost expect
Miss Bishop’s lonely moose, high as a church,
homely as a house, to appear at the next bend.
Our driver waves to every passing truck.
Their headlights flash across a farmhouse window,
redden the eye of a roadside dog.
One trucker doffs his cap as he roars past,
going home to his invisible house by the water,
where five pennies buys you a great many humbugs,
where the dress was all wrong. She screamed.
The child vanishes. Where the moon
in the bureau mirror looks out a million miles.



Just back from California this early Sunday,
and now, those introspective singer-songwriters, or Bach,
even the manic genius of Glenn Gould–just won’t cut it.
Outside, in the gentle Montreal morning
of my childhood, an old man shuffles past
on the arm of his paid, young companion.
Pink impatiens do what they do in orderly beds,
as the odd cyclist zips by in black-and-white Spandex
under Sherbrooke Street’s arched maples.
A homeless man, his hand out for change, seems
tentative, even apologetic. In San Francisco,
I heard someone tell a panhandler, ‘Sorry man,
but change comes from within.’ Yes, that’s
a non-sequitur, and neighbours, I’m sorry.
But this moth on the window screen is too grey
and plain to me, after driving the fire-seared hills
of Oakland, after crossing the Bay Bridge
to the city at nightfall, as bank fog moved
like pure violet cataclysm across the navy bay.
Neighbours, this calls for Peter Gabriel,
his overblown synthesizers, overlaid drum tracks.
Neighbours, we live like orderly mice here
atop the Laurentian fault, Precambrian
and deep as the San Andreas. Surely, this
calls for a brighter noise. I’m sorry, neighbours–
you, concert pianist; you, sleepy optician;
you, McGill phys.ed coach with the girlfriend,
here only on weekends–I’m sorry. But the man
I love sleeps on his side in that other landscape,
fog stalled over the city, as Sandburg said, on cat’s feet.
Here, our papers fill with fights over the language
of signs, instead of what they signify. I’m sorry,
neighbours, to wake you from pleasant or anxious
dreams, but the very limestone under your beds
is grinding against itself right now (for God’s
sake, I could have put on Wagner’s marches!),
and this building settled on its foundations
nearly one hundred years ago and trembles
with every bus that goes by. Neighbours,
I’m sorry about all this bass and percussion
so early on a Sunday, but hey–d’you feel that?